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Title: Quest of the Golden Ape
Author: Garrett, Randall, 1927-1987, Marlowe, Stephen, 1928-2008
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Quest of the Golden Ape" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                         Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from Amazing Stories January, February, March
    1957. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed.

    The Table of Contents is not part of the original magazines


    [Illustration: They were bent upon rapine and slaughter--and what
                   greater prize than the Queen herself?]


                       QUEST OF THE GOLDEN APE


                   By IVAR JORGENSEN and ADAM CHASE


     _How could this man awaken with no past--no childhood--no
      recollection except of a vague world of terror from which
      his mother cried out for vengeance and the slaughter of his
      own people stood as a monument of infamy?_

       *       *       *       *       *



                     CONTENTS

CHAPTER
    I    Mansion of Mystery
   II    The Great Clock of Tarth
  III    The Man in the Cavern
   IV    John Pride's Story
    V    Question Upon Question
   VI    On the Plains of Ofrid
  VII    The White God
 VIII    The Brown Virgin
   IX    In Custody
    X    The Road to Nadia
   XI    On the Ice Fields of Nadia
  XII    Volna the Beautiful
 XIII    The Journey of No Return
  XIV    Land Beyond the Stars
   XV    The Golden Ape
  XVI    The Raging Beast
 XVII    The Prison Without Bars

       *       *       *       *       *



CHAPTER I

_Mansion of Mystery_


In a secluded section of a certain eastern state which must remain
nameless, one may leave the main highway and travel up a winding road
around tortuous bends and under huge scowling trees, into wooded
country.

Upon a certain night--the date of which must remain vague--there came
a man who faced and was not turned back by a series of psychological
barriers along this road which made it more impregnable than a steel
wall. These barriers, which had kept out a hundred years of
curiosity-seekers until that certain night, were forged by the
scientific magic of a genius on a planet far beyond the sun....

The man who boldly followed his headlights up the road was of middle
age with calm, honest eyes and a firm mouth indicating bargains made
in his name would be kept. He pushed on, feeling the subtle force of
the psychological powers against him but resisting because he vaguely
understood them.

He left his car presently and raised his hand to touch the hard
outline of a small book he carried in his breast pocket and with the
gesture his determination hardened. He set his jaw firmly, snapped on
the flashlight he had taken from the dash of his convertible and moved
on up the road.

His firm, brisk steps soon brought him to its end, a great iron gate,
its lock and hinges rusted tight under the patient hand of Time. It
was high and spiked and too dangerous for climbing. But someone had
smashed the lock with a heavy instrument and had applied force until
the rusted hinges gave and the gate stood partially open. From the
look of the metal, this could have been done recently--even in the
past few minutes.

       *       *       *       *       *

The man entered and found a flagstone pathway. He followed this for a
time with the aid of his flashlight. Then he stopped and raised the
beam.

It revealed the outline of a great stone mansion, its myriad windows
like black, sightless eyes, its silent bulk telling of long solitude,
its tongueless voice whispering: _Go away, stranger. Only peril and
misfortune await you here._

But I am not exactly a stranger, the man told himself, approaching the
door and half hoping to find the scowling panel locked.

But it was not locked. The ponderous knob turned under his hand. The
panel moved back silently. The man gripped his flashlight and stepped
inside.

The knowledge that he was no longer alone came as a shock. It was
brought to him by the sound of labored breathing and he flashed the
light about frantically trying to locate the source of the harsh
sound. Then the bright circle picked out a huddled form on the floor
nearby. The man moved forward instantly and went to his knees.

He was looking into an incredibly ancient face. The skin was so deeply
lined as to hang in folds around the sunken eyes. The mouth was but a
toothless maw and the body so shrunken as to seem incapable of
clinging to life. The voice was a harsh whisper.

"Thank God you have come. I am dying. The opening of the gate took all
my remaining strength."

"You have been waiting for me?"

"I have been waiting out the years--striving to keep life in my body
until the moment of destiny. I wanted to see _him_. I wanted to be
there when the door to his resting place opens and he comes forth to
right the terrible wrongs that have been done our people."

The strength of the ancient one was ebbing fast. The words he spoke
had been an effort. The kneeling man said, "I don't understand all
this."

"That matters not. It is important only that you keep the bargain made
long ago with your sire, and that you are here. Someone must be with
_him_ at the awakening."

The newcomer again touched the book in his pocket. "I came because our
word had been given--"

The dying man picked feebly at his sleeve. "Please! You must go below!
The great clock has measured the years. Soon it tolls the moment. Soon
a thundering on the Plains of Ofrid will herald the new age--the
Fighting Age--and a new day will dawn."

While the visitor held his frail shoulders, the dying man gasped and
said, "Hasten! Hurry to the vault below! Would that I could go with
you, but that is not to be."

And then the visitor realized he was holding a corpse in his arms. He
laid it gently down and did as he had been directed to do.



CHAPTER II

_The Great Clock of Tarth_


The Plains of Ofrid on the planet Tarth stretched flat and monotonous
as far as the eye could reach, a gently waving ocean of soft,
knee-high grass where herds of wild stads grazed and bright-hued birds
vied in brilliance with the flaming sun.

From the dark Abarian Forests to the Ice Fields of Nadia, the plain
stretched unbroken except for the tall, gray tower in its exact center
and it was toward this tower that various groups of Tarthans were now
moving.

Every nation on the planet was represented in greater or lesser
number. The slim, erect Nadians in their flat-bottomed air cars that
could hang motionless in space or skim the surface of the planet at a
thousand jeks an hour. The grim-faced Abarians, tall and finely
muscled on their powerful stads, their jeweled uniforms flashing back
the glory of the heavens. The Utalians, those chameleon men of Tarth,
their skins now the exact color of the grasses across which they rode,
thus causing their stads to appear unmounted and unguided.

All the nations of Tarth were represented, drawn toward the tower by a
century-old legend, a legend which Retoc the Abarian clarified as he
rode at the head of his own proud group.

He waved a hand, indicating the vast plain and spoke to Hultax, his
second in command, saying, "Little would one think that this flat,
empty land was once the site of a vast and powerful nation. One of the
greatest upon all Tarth!" A smile of cruelty and satisfaction played
upon his handsome features as he surveyed the plain.

"Aye," Hultax replied. "The realm of the Ofridians. Truly they were a
great nation."

"But we Abarians were greater," Retoc snapped. "We not only defeated
them but we leveled their land until not one stone stood upon
another."

"All save the tower," Hultax said. "No weapon known could so much as
scratch its surface."

       *       *       *       *       *

A new voice cut in. "Quite true. Portox's scientific skill was too
great for you." Both Abarians turned quickly to scowl at the newcomer,
Bontarc of Nadia, who had swung close in his one-man car and was
hovering by their side.

Retoc's hand moved toward the hilt of his long whip-like sword, driven
there by the look of contempt in Bontarc's eyes. But Retoc hesitated.
A formidable squadron of Bontarc's Nadian fighting men hovered nearby
and the Abarian had no taste for a battle in which the odds were close
to even.

"We defeated the Ofridians fairly," he said.

"And slaughtered them fairly? Cut down the men and women and children
alike until the entire nation was obliterated?"

The systematic annihilation had taken place a century before when
Bontarc had been but a child and Retoc a young man. Karnod, Retoc's
father, now dead, had planned the war that defeated the Ofridians, his
winning card having been spies in the court of Evalla, Queen of Ofrid.
Karnod had been fatally wounded during the last battle and had
delegated to his son the task of annihilating the Ofridians and
levelling their nation. This task, Retoc accepted with relish,
reserving for himself the pleasure of slaying Queen Evalla. Details of
the torture to which Retoc subjected the beautiful Evalla were
whispered over the planet and it was said the sadistic Retoc had taken
photographs of the Queen in her agony to enjoy in later years.

It had been the scientific ability of Portox of Ofrid that had
engendered the Abarian hatred and jealousy in the first place. Portox
used his science for the good of all on the planet Tarth, but when
Karnod, Lord of Abaria, struck, no other nation came to Ofrid's aid.
Then it was too late, because Abaria's military might greatened as a
result of the Ofridian defeat and only an alliance of all other
nations could have conquered them.

Ironically, Portox had never been captured.

Now as the tall gray tower came into view, Bontarc's mind was filled
with thoughts of Portox, the Ofridian wizard. It was said that Portox
had been able to travel through space to other planets that were known
to exist, that he had left Tarth and found safety somewhere across
space, first building his tower which would never be destroyed; that a
great clock within it was measuring off one hundred years--the time on
the planet Tarth of an infant's development into manhood--and that at
the end of that span the clock would toll and there would come forth a
man to avenge the slaughter of the Ofridians.

Bontarc turned suddenly upon the dour Retoc. "Tell me," he said, "is
there any truth to the legend that the clock in the tower will toll
the end of one hundred years?"

"None whatever," the sadistic Abarian snapped. "A rumor passed from
the lips of one old woman to another."

Bontarc smiled. "Then why are you here? The hundred years are up
today."

Retoc's hand moved toward his whip-sword. "Are you calling me a liar?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Bontarc watched alertly as the blade came partly from its scabbard.
"If we fight we may miss the tolling of the clock," he said evenly.

With an oath, Retoc pushed the sword back into its scabbard and put
sharp heels to his stad's flanks. The animal screamed indignantly and
rocketed ahead. Bontarc smiled and turned his car back toward his own
group.

And now they were assembled and waiting, the curious of the planet
Tarth. Would the clock toll as it was rumored Portox had said? Would
an avenger come forth to challenge Retoc and his Abarian hordes?

There was not much time left. Swiftly the clock ticked off the
remaining moments and the end of one hundred years was at hand.
Silence settled over the assembled Tarthans.

Then a great sound boomed over the plains; a single ringing peal that
rose majestically into the air, reverberated across the empty land
that once had been the site of a thriving, prosperous nation. The
first part of the legend had been fulfilled.

Then, suddenly, chaos reigned. With a great thundering that shook the
ground upon which they stood, the gray tower exploded in crimson
glory; a great mushrooming blossom of red fire erupted skyward hurling
the assembled Tarthans to the ground where they lay in numbed stupor.

The thunderous report echoed across the plain ten thousand times
louder than the tolling of the clock. But aside from the initial
dulling shock, no Tarthan was injured because the crushing power rose
upward.

There was an expression of mute wonder on Bontarc's face. And he
thought: We have not seen the end of this. It is only the beginning.
But the beginning of what? Only Portox could have known. And Portox
was--where?

Bontarc started his car and moved across the plain sensing cosmic
events but not knowing....

Not knowing that the sound of the tolling clock had gone with more
than the speed of light across the void, had been flung arrow-straight
to a brooding mansion in the heart of a thick forest upon another
planet; to the door of a cavern deep in the rock beneath the mansion.

That even now the lock of this door had responded to the electronic
impulse and the huge panel was swinging slowly open.



CHAPTER III

_The Man in the Cavern_


As the sound of the tolling clock died out across the Plains of Ofrid,
a man opened his eyes on the planet far away and saw for the first
time the place in which he had spent one hundred years.

He awoke with neither fright nor surprise but rather with a sense of
wonder. He arose slowly from the great bed upon which he had lain and
allowed his attention to roam about the strange place in which he
found himself.

In the wall opposite the bed there was set a full length mirror and as
the man turned he saw himself for the first time; a tall,
broadly-muscled figure of heroic proportions. Completely naked, his
body was reflected as masculine perfection in every detail.

For a few moments, the man stared at the body as though it belonged to
someone else. Then he spoke musingly. "You did your work well, Portox,
my friend."

The sound of his own voice startled him but not so much so as the
content of the words. A baffled expression touched his handsome face.
Who was Portox? And what work had he done? What place was this--and
for that matter, who was he himself, this naked figure which looked
back at him from the glittering mirror?

The questions were annoying because he felt that he knew the answers.
Yet they would not come within reach of his conscious mind.

He had little time to ponder this enigma however because at that
moment he became aware of a second presence in the room. He turned. A
man stood just inside the open door.

The naked one stared at the other with an interest that left no room
for self-consciousness nor shame. "Who are you?" he asked.

"My name is John Pride," the man answered. He was a man of erect
bearing and though there was wonder and surprise in his voice he bore
himself with a quiet dignity. "And now," he added, "may I ask you the
same question?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The naked man looked down at his own body and for the first time
seemed conscious of its nudity. He glanced around the room and saw a
robe of royal purple lying across a chair by the bed. He stepped over
and lifted the robe and put it on. As he was tying the rich purple
cord around his waist he looked frankly back at John Pride and said,
"I do not know. I honestly do not know."

John Pride said, "I have wondered what I would find in this
cavern--wondered through the years. Only in my wildest fancies did I
tell myself that a fellow human--or even a living creature--awaited me
here. But now I find this is true."

The younger man regarded his visitor with a calmness that belied any
wariness between them. John Pride noted this with admiration and
respect. The young man said, "Won't you be seated?" and when his guest
was comfortable, regarded him with a smile. "Perhaps there are some
things we should talk over."

"Perhaps there are. You say you do not know your own name?"

"That only begins to sum up my ignorance. I am not only unaware of my
identity but I haven't the faintest notion of what this place
is--where it is--or how I came here."

It was John Pride's turn to stare. While doing so, he analyzed the
younger man keenly. He saw honesty and an inner warmth that attracted
him. There was something almost godlike in the clean lines of the body
he had seen and in the face. These things coupled with what he already
knew, intrigued him mightily and he resolved to approach this strange
affair with an open mind and not play the role of the unbelieving
cynic. It was time to go ahead.

       *       *       *       *       *

John Pride said, "First, are you aware that there is another in this
mansion--or was?"

"I did not even know this was a mansion. It seems only one room."

"It is an enormous structure set deep in the forest."

"This other one--?"

"A very old man. He died as I arrived here tonight."

"You do not know his name or how came he here?"

"I have a vague idea."

The young man's dazzling blue eyes narrowed in thought. "A while ago
you said you have wondered through the years as to what you would find
in this room. That indicates you were aware of its existence."

"True. Perhaps at this point I had better tell you the complete
story--as much of it as I know."

"I would be in your debt."

"No, I will merely be discharging the last of a very old obligation."

With that, John Pride took from his pocket a small leather covered
book. He handled it gently, almost with affection, and said, "This was
my father's notebook. In it, is an account of this remarkable affair,
put down by my great grandfather and handed down through the line.
When my father died he placed it in my hand saying it entailed an
obligation both business and personal and it was my obligation as well
as his.

"I have read the account of what transpired many times and with your
permission I will put it into my own words. Then, when I am done, I
will give you the book and the affair will be over so far as I and my
family are concerned."

John Pride had settled back in his chair and was just ready to begin
when the young man held up a sudden hand. "Just one moment--please,"
he said, and a look of concentration came upon his face. Then he went
on and his words took the form of a rhyme:

    "An ape, a boar, a stallion,
     A land beyond the stars.
     A virgin's feast, a raging beast,
     A prison without bars."

He flushed and added: "I don't know why I was possessed to recite that
doggerel at just this moment but there is something strange about it.
Strange in that I have a feeling it was taught to me at some long
distant time in the past. I sense that it is very important to
whatever destiny awaits me. Yet I know not who taught me the verse nor
what it means."

"That verse is inscribed in this book and I believe I know how it
entered your mind and memory. I believe too, that I understand how you
are able to converse with me though you know nothing of this land or
even this room," John Pride said quietly.

"Then please tell me!"

"I think it better that I start at the beginning rather than give you
the story piece-meal. That way, your mind will be better able to
assimilate and to judge."

"I await your pleasure," the young man said with impatience he strove
to conceal.

"Very well," John Pride said, his eyes growing vague with a far-away
look.



CHAPTER IV

_John Pride's Story_


"I am a member," John Pride began, "of a firm called Pride, Conroy,
and Wilson. We are a very old firm of private bankers with offices in
Wall Street. Both Conroy and Wilson died before I was born, leaving no
issue, so the company has been controlled by a Pride for many years.

"This affair in which we are interested had its inception one hundred
years ago. At that time, a man came to see my great grandfather in his
office. He was a most remarkable man and gained my grandfather's
respect and confidence from the very first. He never stated from
whence he came, being more interested in the future than in the past.
He put up at a New York City hotel and my great grandfather knew there
were three in his party; the man himself, another man and a woman both
somewhat older than he.

"At one time when my great grandfather visited them in their hotel
suite, he saw the woman fleetingly as she was leaving the room. She
was carrying something that he thought could have been an infant
snuggled in a blanket. He could not be sure however and he did not ask
questions.

"The man was interested in obtaining a place of abode, a place that
had to possess certain definite qualifications. First, it had to be
built upon solid rock and set in the most secluded location possible.

"Second, it had to be so completely free of legal involvements that
when he secured title, no possible claim of another could ever be
taken seriously enough to even cause the property to be visited. In
short, the strange man said, details relevant to the property must
integrate to a point where no one would visit it for one hundred
years."

At this place in his narrative, John Pride stopped a moment to rest
his voice. After a pause, the young man in the purple robe inquired,
"Why do you smile?"

"At the recollection. My great grandfather had just a white
elephant--"

"A white elephant?"

"Merely a descriptive term. A place that had been built before the
Revolution but which even at that early time had been bypassed by the
trend of progress until it was completely isolated. No one wanted it.
No one would ever want it so far as my great grandfather could judge."

"Except this strange man you speak of."

"Precisely. He was delighted with the place and when my great
grandfather pointed out that even with the location and the high
surrounding wall there was no guarantee that wandering adventurers
might not move in and take possession at some distant date, the man
smiled cryptically and said he would see to it that that did not
occur."

       *       *       *       *       *

The young man was scowling. "I know that man. He is somewhere back in
my mind, but he will not come forward."

John Pride regarded his listener for a moment and then went on. "The
man seemed in ample funds and paid for the property with a giant ruby
the like of which my great grandfather had never before set eyes on.

"But the affair was far from ended. The man moved his _ménage_ into
the mansion saying he would call upon my great grandfather later.

       *       *       *       *       *

"All the legal formalities had been of course taken care of--an
indisputable deed, guaranteed by the strongest trust company in the
land. But that was not enough.

"After a few weeks, during which time the man had inquired of my great
grandfather where certain materials could be obtained, he returned to
the old gentleman's office with the most startling request of all.

"He said that he had set in motion a procedure that would terminate in
exactly one hundred years from a given moment and that he wished to
retain grandfather's firm as trust agents in relation to that
procedure. The duties of the firm would be negligible during the
hundred-year period. My great grandfather and his issue were merely to
remain completely away from the property which was certainly a simple
thing to do.

"But knowledge of what had taken place must be passed down to his son
and in case the latter did not survive the one hundred years, to his
son's son.

"At this point my great grandfather interposed reality in the form of
a question: 'I have a son but suppose he is so inconsiderate as to not
duplicate with a male heir?'

"The man smiled and said he was sure that would not be the case. He
was right, but whether it was a gamble on his part or whether he spoke
from a knowledge beyond us, we never knew.

"But regardless--at the end of one hundred years the surviving issue
was, by sacred trust, to be present in this mansion. The door of a
vault beneath it would open and the trustee was to enter and deliver
therein a written account of the series of events leading up to that
moment.

"In payment for this service, the man insisted upon presenting my
great grandfather with jewels the value of which on a yearly basis
transcended all our other income combined. My great grandfather
demurred but the man said nothing brightens memory so much as
material gain and he did not want the agreement to be forgotten."

"What happened to the man?" the young listener asked.

John Pride shook his head sadly. "We never knew. When all the
arrangements were made, he came again to the office, thanked my great
sire for his services, and was never seen again."

"He must have given you his name."

John Pride frowned. "He used a name of course but there was the
impression of its not being his true one. The book mentions this. The
name he used was C. D. Bram."

"Portox!" the young man cried suddenly.

"What did you say?"

"Portox. The name is back in my mind. I used it as I awoke."

"A strange name."

"And stranger still is the fact that I know nothing of it--wait!" The
young man's handsome features strained as he concentrated with all his
power. Sweat stood out on his forehead. But then a look of
disappointment came into his face and his broad shoulders sagged. "No.
The knowledge is somewhere back in my mind but I cannot capture it."

John Pride was about to speak but the young man stayed him with a
sudden intense look. "One thing however is very clear to me."

"And that is--?"

"The face of my mother."

"The woman who held you in her arms in the hotel suite?"

"No, I do not think so. But I see a face clearly in my mind. A sad and
beautiful face. There is a marked resemblance between it and what I
see in that mirror. She is the most beautiful woman who ever lived and
I yearn to find her and take her in my arms."

"I hope you succeed."

       *       *       *       *       *

A tragic light appeared in the young man's eyes. "But where is she?
How can I find her? Why did she leave me in this place?"

"I do not have the answers to those questions. But I have a theory
concerning you and the elapsed years."

"Tell me!"

John Pride spoke firmly but with obvious awe. "I think you were
brought here as an infant for some reason known only to the one who
called himself C. D. Bram."

"Or Portox."

"Perhaps. I think you were placed in that bed and left there for one
hundred years."

"But--"

"Consider. That door has never been opened. There is certainly no
other exit to this cavern."

"And I have no recollection of ever having lived before," the young
man said slowly.

"Yet you can converse with me. You obviously have been given an
education."

"But how?"

"It is known that knowledge can be injected into the subconscious
while the receiver sleeps. I'm sure the man you insist upon calling
Portox was aware of this--this and perhaps other scientific miracles.
Who are we to say that you were not nourished by some means beyond our
knowledge?"

But that investigation was never to be made because as John Pride
extended his hand to touch the box it suddenly burst into a glow and
he withdrew his fingers quickly.

Before the younger man could answer a glowing point of light sprang
into being and brightened and a wave of searing heat erupted from the
walls of the room, searing the eyes of John Pride and leaving him to
grope helplessly as in the heart of a furnace. The younger man was
beyond his reach. Blinding pain caused him to reel.



CHAPTER V

_Question Upon Question_


John Pride opened his eyes as a moan escaped his lips. The haze
cleared and he found himself lying upon a cool stone floor looking up
into the concerned face of the younger man. "What happened?" John
Pride asked feebly. He tried to refocus.

"I don't know except that the heat of that fire was upon us with such
swiftness that we were almost incapacitated. I picked you up and
started walking. Fortunately I moved in the direction of the door.
Otherwise we would have been doomed."

"I am in your debt."

"No more so than I in yours."

"Did you extinguish the fire?"

"It burned out of its own accord. But only after the cave was
completely gutted. There is nothing left in there but the bare rock
walls."

John Pride sat up with quick concern. "The book!"

"It is gone." The young man looked ruefully down at his own naked
body. "Gone--together with my precious robe."

"That can easily be replaced along with other raiment but the book--I
was supposed to deliver it--"

"--to the cavern. You did that, my friend. It was not through you that
the fire consumed it. You have dispatched your obligation. Let your
mind be at ease."

John Pride got to his feet. He shook his head in the negative. "No. A
portion of my obligation still exists. Fortunately I did not bring
forth the second and last item I was to place in the cavern."

"The second item?"

"Yes, and I believe the most important."

       *       *       *       *       *

With that, Pride took from his pocket a small box wrapped in heavy
material and sealed and resealed with a sort of rubberized wax.

"This," he said. "I know not what is in the box nor I think, did my
father, my grandfather, nor my great grandfather before me. We have
been given to understand that its delivery to the cavern was the most
important single duty of the trust. So I now place it in your hands,
praying that this act fulfills the long-standing obligation of my
family."

The younger man had salvaged a portion of his robe, a length of
material that went over his shoulders and draped skimpily down the
sides of his body. This did nothing whatever in the way of covering
his nudity but rather accentuated and added to it.

He took the box and was scanning it with great interest when the
excitement and strenuous action of the preceding few minutes again
took grip upon John Pride's comparatively less rugged physique.

His eyes closed and he began sinking again to the floor whereupon the
younger man slipped the box hastily in the pocket that had not burned
away from his robe and caught John Pride in his arms.

He lifted the elder man and carried him up from the mansion caverns
and into the great hall that swept forward to the main entrance. As he
walked, bearing the heavy burden as though it were but a mere feather,
he was of two minds.

One mind entertained concern for his new-found friend and the other
was occupied with interest in these new and strange surroundings.

Dawn had broken over the forest and in a brooding light within the
great hall, he saw the withered body of the dead man on the floor. He
paused for a moment and then went out across the flagstone porch and
into the open air.

He marveled at the green expanse of forest that reared in majesty
about him. He drew in deep gusts of the cool air and found it good. He
smiled.

Then John Pride stirred in his arms and showed signs of returning
consciousness. The young man laid the financier on the soft grass and
watched until his eyes opened.

"Are you feeling better? Is there anything I can do?"

John Pride smiled feebly as he raised himself with the younger man's
aid. "I'm afraid this has been more strenuous than I bargained for. If
I'd known what would transpire I would have kept myself in better
condition."

"But you feel better now?"

"Yes. If you will be so good as to help me to my car, I'll be all
right."

"Certainly. Your car--?"

"A means of conveyance that will take me back to the city. It stands
but a few yards down the road beyond the gate."

A short time later, the two men stood at the place that was to be the
parting of their ways. Both sensed this and Pride held out his hand.
The younger man grasped it firmly.

"Godspeed to you, my friend," John Pride said. "I fear I can help you
no further but if there is ever a time when my services are needed, I
will be waiting for your command."

"Thank you. Whatever befalls me I will always remember you as the
first friend I ever set eyes upon in this world."

With that, John Pride turned his car and drove off down the winding
road. As he left, the younger man realized the older man had said
nothing of the dead ancient in the great hall but realized it was
because of the strain Pride had suffered. The man was still somewhat
dazed from the shock of the fire.

       *       *       *       *       *

He turned and walked slowly back toward the mansion until he stood
again in the great front yard. There he stopped and stood looking up
at the sun as it topped the hill east of the mansion.

"Who am I?" he asked himself. "Why was I given knowledge but not all
the knowledge necessary to intelligently pursue my destiny? In my
heart there is a certainty that I am an educated man. I am aware of
the fact that there are different groups of people who speak different
languages and I know I will be able to converse with any I meet.

"I know that there are planets and stars and moons and I know what is
to be known of the universe. But where is the exact personal knowledge
that would help me in my dealings with the future? Why was I left here
carefully tended and provided for these hundred years only to be
hurled suddenly upon my own?"

He walked slowly into the great hall and knelt beside the still figure
on the floor. A feeling of compassion stirred him but there was no
warmth of recognition, no personal sorrow as a result of the ancient's
death.

"Have I ever seen you before?" he asked softly. "Were you--Portox?"

The dead one did not answer and the young man lifted him and took him
from the hall and buried him. He could find no tools to dig the soil
but located a hole that had once been a shallow well. He dropped the
body therein and followed it with stones until the hole was filled. He
did this with no sense of callousness but rather with an impersonal
reverence he instinctively felt but could not analyze.

[Illustration: The cryptic verse had become a visual symbol in Bram's
mind.]

Returning slowly to the front yard, he pondered the dimension of
time. How, he wondered, could John Pride's line have gone through
three sires to John Pride, the last of the males, while he himself lay
for one hundred years to emerge in his obvious prime? Or perhaps even
on the near side of his prime.

       *       *       *       *       *

He pondered this and other points until his mind grew weary from
unanswered questions and turned to things of the moment.

"I know not what my destiny is but at least I am able to have a name.
What shall it be?"

He remembered the one Portox had used--C. D. Bram. "Bram," he said.
"That I like." But the C. D. meant nothing to him and Bram seemed
somehow incomplete.

"John Price had a name of two parts," he said, "so why should I not
have the same?"

He looked about him and a breeze in the green branches above seemed to
whisper the answer. He heard and considered, then smiled to himself,
raised his voice.

"I christen myself Bram Forest, to be known from this moment on by
that name."

Suddenly his smile deepened, then laughter welled from his great
chest; a laughter arising from the sheer joy of this new thing called
living into which he had stepped.

Now he stretched his arms over his head, palms upward as though
supplicating to some far-off deity. He leaped high in the air testing
his muscles and finding them good.

Then he was running, naked and golden off across the open hill. He ran
until his huge chest pounded with delicious pain as his lungs labored
for air. Finally he dropped to the ground and lay spread-eagled
looking up at the sky.

He laughed long and joyously.

He lay for a long time thus, then suddenly remembered the box John
Pride had given him. But the scanty garment had dropped from his
shoulders so he sprang to his feet and ran back until he discovered
it.

The box was still there. He examined it curiously turning it over and
over in his hands. The seal was stubborn but it finally gave and he
peeled off the heavy wrapping. A small white box came to light.

This he opened to stand frowning at what it contained. An odd
instrument of some sort--a flat disc about two inches in diameter and
possibly a quarter of an inch thick. Both faces were of shining,
crystalline metal reflecting back anything that was imaged upon them.

Two short metal straps appended from opposite sides of the queer
instrument, one of which held a buckle at its end. He held the shining
disc to his ear but there was no sound that he could detect.

Frustrated he looked again into the box. It appeared to be empty. But
no. As he was about to fling it away, he noted that what appeared to
be its inner bottom was in reality a second flat package that fitted
perfectly into the receptacle. He shook it free and found it to be
merely a flat rectangle wrapped tightly in white paper.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was about to rip the paper with his thumbnail when his attention
switched suddenly to the shining disc. He had envisioned a use for it;
or at least a place for which it seemed constructed.

He tested his theory and found the straps fit snugly and perfectly
around his wrist. He pondered which wrist to place it on and decided
the right one would be appropriate. Quickly, he snapped the buckle
into its hasp and then held forth his arm to admire the brightness of
the queer device.

If he had expected anything to happen, he was disappointed and he
stood there wondering what use was to be found from such a seemingly
useless device.

After a while he unbuckled the disc and moved it to his left wrist.
Perhaps it would look better there. Again he raised his arm to admire
it and had stood thus for some moments when he became conscious of an
odd sickness in the pit of his stomach.

He did not associate this with the disc at all and immediately forgot
the thing, giving his whole attention to the uncomfortable feeling
that had come upon him.

The sickness increased in intensity and he bent down, doubling over
his abdomen as the nausea became a pain. As he sank to his knees, he
noted the disc had changed, had taken on an odd, transparent glow.

There had to be a connection between his illness and the abominable
device and he clawed at the buckle, seeking to loosen it and hurl the
thing away.

But there was no time. The pain sharpened and a black cloud dimmed his
sight. He clawed feebly at the buckle and then his numbed fingers
weakened, fell away from it.

The darkness increased and seemed to lift him from the ground upon
which he lay. It clawed at his throat, entered his nostrils like a
malignant force.

As his consciousness faded a single thought was in his mind: _Born but
to live a few brief moments and die again. What sense is there to such
a farce as this? Born--but--to die--again. Portox! Help me! It can't
be--There must be some help!_



CHAPTER VI

_On the Plains of Ofrid_


Jlomec the Nadian guided his air car across the grassy plains of Ofrid
but a scant few feet above the tops of the waving grasses.

It was a fine day and the Nadian was taking full advantage of it. One
of a race of proud and noble fighting men, Jlomec was an exception to
the rule in that he was a dreamer rather than a fighter, a thinker
rather than a doer, a poet rather than a military strategist.

Thus, his mind dwelt upon the historic incident of the previous days
when, standing beside his brother, Bontarc, he had watched the gray
tower of Portox the Ofridian explode into a fine cloud of dust.

And it was characteristic of the gentle Jlomec that his mind was more
occupied with the romantic aspect of the incident than the violent. He
thought of the poem, the bit of doggerel carved in the foundation
stone of the tower. For a century all Tarthans had puzzled over the
verse put there by Portox so long ago:

    An ape, a boar, a stallion,
    A land beyond the stars,
    A virgin's feast, a raging beast,
    A prison without bars.

Had it any meaning? Jlomec wondered. A thousand different
interpretations had been put upon the verse over the years, but no one
knew for sure.

That it had something to do with the slaughter of the Ofridians,
Jlomec was sure. But what?

As he ruminated thus, Jlomec's attention was caught by moving figures
some ten jeks to the south. He knew this to be the location of one of
the great wells that dotted the Plains of Ofrid.

In the times before the great massacre, these wells had been located
in the hearts of the fine Ofridian cities of which the Abarians stood
in great envy. These wells gushed endlessly of cool crystal water
which kept the fabulous hanging gardens of Ofrid multicolored and
beautiful.

But all that was in the past. The Ofridians had been slain to a man
and their cities leveled until not a stone stood upon a stone. Now
lonely grasses grew where once glittered the results of Portox's great
scientific genius. Now there were only round steel doors in the ground
to mark the locations of the great Ofridian wells.

These thoughts occupied Jlomec's mind as he turned his car and coursed
it in the direction of the well. The figures came clearly into view,
causing Jlomec to frown in puzzlement.

What manner of people were these? There were a half dozen of them--two
men, three females, and one babe-in-arms. Jlomec got the impression
that--though they were erect and finely formed--that they were of
short stature.

But now he realized he had got this impression only by their
comparison to the seventh figure by the well. He knew at a glance that
this seventh was an Abarian warrior, exceptionally tall and wearing
the look of grim cruelty so characteristic of his race.

Jlomec paid the Abarian scant heed however, so engrossed was he in
studying the strange half-dozen. Their skins were richly browned and
they wore almost no clothing.

Who could they be? Jlomec wondered, and from whence had they come?
Mightily intrigued, he moved forward until he came within earshot of
the party. Then, for reason of the words he heard spoken, he halted
his air car and frowned.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Abarian, he recognized as the famed Retoc himself. A fierce stad
pawed the ground nearby indicating how the tall, sneering commander of
the Abarians had arrived at this spot. Retoc was known to roam the
Plains of Ofrid at times, still savoring the destruction he and his
sire, Harnod, had accomplished; pleasuring himself with memories of
bodies piled high, of bloody swords and helpless cries of the dying.

Or was it for some other reason that Retoc roamed the plains? Was it a
nameless fear that drove him there? Did the accusing face of Portox
the Ofridian genius still hang balefully in his memory? Had Portox
acquainted the Abarian devil with knowledge that he alone carried in
his guilty heart? And did that knowledge generate a fear that Retoc
the Abarian could not rid himself of?

At any rate, he now stood between the brown people and the Ofridian
well, enjoying a useless cruelty as was his custom.

The leader of the group extended his hands in supplication and said,
"We only ask water, sire. A small thing, but long have we waited to
quench our thirst."

Retoc said, "What manner of people are you?"

"Harmless ones. See? We are unarmed and peaceful."

"That does not answer my question. Tell me who you are and from whence
you came. Then we will see whether my fancy dictates that you shall
have water from this well."

Indignation and rage dimmed Jlomec's better judgment. He had glided in
beyond range of Retoc's vision and now he leaped from his car and drew
his wandlike whip-sword. "Is there no drop of common decency or
compassion left in you, Retoc, that you do this thing to helpless
people?"

The Abarian whirled with alarm not knowing what force might be arrayed
against him. But when he saw the lone Jlomec, his composure returned
and his self-assurance again took charge. Had the newcomer been
Bontarc, the dreamy Jlomec's skillful brother, Retoc the Abarian would
have conducted himself differently. But as it was, he sneered at the
gentle Nadian and asked, "What business of this is yours, Jlomec?"

"Injustice is everyone's business. These people, whoever they are, ask
only to drink." Jlomec's eyes blazed. "And drink they shall, Abarian!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Retoc's handsome eyes glowed. No doubt as to the outcome of this
contest. He drew his own sword and whipped its supple length through
the air. "Since you choose to champion this scum, let's get on with
it."

Had Jlomec's indignation not been of a quality to blind him to
consequences, he would have perhaps hesitated. But hot with this
injustice, he whipped his own sword and leaped at Retoc.

The latter, with a grim smile of confidence, parried the thrust with
ease and manipulated his own whip-sword with a skill which few
fighting men on the planet Tarth could have equalled.

The weapons were strange ones by Earth standards and would have
probably been considered impractical. They were a good six feet in
length with the supple resiliency of a fly casting rod. The trick of
using them effectively lay in controlling the sway and whip of the
long thin blades by skillful use of the wrist. An expert Tarthan
swordsman could parry a thrust with a lightning whip of his blade, arc
the singing steel in the opposite direction and perhaps bring his
opponent down with a thrust that would enter between his shoulder
blades, the sword still arced to describe half a circle.

       *       *       *       *       *

In essence, this favorite weapon of the Tarthans was a combination of
whip and sword and combat was a matter of thrusting at angles far
wider than could be achieved with a stiff blade. A good Tarthan
swordsman would have been an excellent billiard player on Earth for
his knowledge of workable angles was of necessity supreme.

Retoc the Abarian was a master at this swordplay. Enjoying himself
hugely because there was little risk, he toyed with the less skillful
Nadian. He did not intend to kill Jlomec, fearing the wrath of
Bontarc. He meant only to teach the stupid Nadian a lesson he would
not forget.

But as his blade sang and stung, its needle point darting in like the
fangs of a snake's head, and as Jlomec's clumsy blade sought
desperately to parry, Retoc's blood lust rose to the fore. The joy of
dealing death to the helpless was upon him and with a swift thrust he
allowed his blade to enter Jlomec's unprotected back just above the
kidney, to streak upward through his body and pierce his heart.

Frightened at what he had done he jerked the blade free. Its entwined
force whirled Jlomec in a complete circle from which he fell limply,
dead before he hit the ground.

Retoc stood scowling at the fallen Nadian, his dripping blade rising
and falling gently in the breeze as he held it extended. The Abarian's
eyes darted to the group of brown-skinned folk, his anger centering
upon them as he nimbly switched the blame for this foul murder from
his own shoulders to theirs. If they had not been at the well--

He was ready to extend his slaughter in their direction, to wipe out
the lot of them, when he paused, his scowl deepening. There was fear
and awe upon their faces but they were not regarding either Retoc or
his fallen adversary.

Their eyes were turned in another direction and Retoc sent his own
glance after theirs. His eyes held upon what he saw. A naked man. But
such a man as he had never before seen on all the planet Tarth.



CHAPTER VII

_The White God_


Bram Forest returned to consciousness and realized the black nausea of
his previous moments had vanished. All traces of the sickness were
gone as he opened his eyes, his mind intent upon the small flat
package that had dropped from the box in which he had found the
strange disc-like instrument. But the package was not within reach.

This caused only a small part of his bewilderment however. His
attention was riveted mainly upon the tableaux being enacted before
him. A group of people, almost as naked as himself, deeply browned of
skin, stood huddled nearby.

Almost as though for the entertainment of these, two grim and
uniformed warriors were facing each other on the level turf before the
strange circular ground-entrance beside which Bram Forest found
himself.

The two warriors possessed strange supple swords which they
manipulated with much skill. At least, one of the warriors did. The
other seemed clumsy in comparison but there was no hint of cowardice
in his manner.

Upon closer inspection the two warriors who had seemed of a cut at
first glance were quite dissimilar. The one of greater skill was dark
and possessed of a cruel mouth and venomous dark eyes. The other was
slim and fair with contemptuous blue eyes. He fought with an erect
stiffness in his shoulders which was both awkward and dignified at the
same time.

The sympathy of Bram Forest went out instinctively to the fair one but
the dark, sinister swordsman held his attention. There was something
naggingly familiar about the dark one's cruel face. A tantalizing
familiarity that bemused Bram Forest even as the singing swords
thrust and parried with that of the dark warrior always on the
offensive and the other fighter striving more for self-preservation
than for aggressiveness.

Where, Bram Forest wondered, had he seen the dark one before? Nowhere,
of course. Any previous contact was impossible. Or was it? Dared he,
Bram Forest, call anything impossible after what had already occurred?

Bram Forest glanced down and realized he had been removing the disc
from his left wrist and placing it on his right. He had committed the
act instinctively, in the same manner he breathed and moved and his
mind went back momentarily to the two tubes he had found in his ears
when he awoke in the cavern back on Earth.

Back on Earth? How did he know he was not still on that planet? I've
got to stop questioning these things I possess knowledge of but know
not why. I must take them at face value and without wonder. Otherwise
I shall spend all my years in conflict with my own mind.

At that moment, the dark warrior's whip-sword whined in a skillful arc
and entered the body of the fair one. A moan of sympathy arose from
the waiting group as the defeated warrior sank to the ground, his face
strained in agony and fast becoming a death-mask.

The dark warrior stepped back, a cruel sneer of satisfaction gleaming
in his eyes. Bram Forest, sickened by the unequal contest rose up from
where he lay and moved forward. This drew the attention of both the
group and the victorious warrior and the effect was electric.

The huddled observers reacted with a mixture of consternation, awe,
and fear that would have been comic under less tense circumstances.
They dropped as one to their knees. They placed their foreheads upon
the ground. A concerted moan escaped them that far transcended in
depth and feeling the one with which they had reacted to the death of
the fair warrior.

       *       *       *       *       *

In a language Bram Forest was completely familiar with, their voices
sounded a chant of fear and awe. "The white god has come! The white
god has come! The white god has come!"

Bram Forest scarcely considered them. He was advancing upon the dark
warrior with the clean, stalking movements of a tiger, his great
shoulders low, his magnificent legs tense for the death spring.

The dark one was frozen from surprise. From whence had this naked
white creature erupted? He stood stiff from sudden fear and
uncertainty a moment too long and the hands of the avenger were upon
him. The fingers of those hands were like steel talons driving deep
into his throat and in his panicked mind he looked upon the face of
death and found it horrible. He was being driven down to the ground,
lower and lower in abject submission by this strange and terrible
manifestation the brown-skinned ones had called a white god.

The dark warrior's mind raced and in his terrorized desperation a
native cunning sprang to his aid. Using every ounce of his remaining
strength, he forced words up from his tortured throat. "Would you kill
an unarmed man?"

The words touched a responsive chord in Bram Forest's mind. The craven
spoke aptly. By killing him thus, was not Bram Forest doing the same
thing for which he had condemned the other?

Bram Forest straightened and hurled the cringing figure from him.
"Then defend yourself, swine!" he cried and seized up the dead
warrior's shining whip sword.

The dark one sought means of escape but he feared turning from this
avenger as much as facing him. He could only play for time.

Rising, he retrieved his own sword and faced the other with his
expression of fear not one whit abated. The man of the steel hands
whipped the sword experimentally and the dark one was struck by a ray
of hope. The other's actions with the blade were as clumsy as had been
those of Jlomec the Nadian. Perhaps all was not lost.

       *       *       *       *       *

The dark one gripped his blade and moved forward in the customary
crouch of the Tarthan fighting man. Then elation welled up within him
as the answering posture of the other revealed him as knowing nothing
whatever of the whip-sword's use. The dark one's smile returned. God
or not, the skill of this one with the ancient weapon of Tarth was
even less than that of the pathetic Jlomec.

The dark warrior parried a clumsy thrust with ease and whipped his
blade around to harass the other's exposed back. "You are a fool!" he
said, "whatever else you may be. As you die, give thought to the fact
that you join a large company. Those who have faced the greatest
swordsman of Tarth and fallen ignobly before his blade."

With that the dark one whipped his blade home and spun his adversary
expertly in order to discover the exact point of entrance of the
blade. His aim was true.

It was just a trifle low but the other fell heavily and the dark
warrior withdrew his blade and wiped it uneasily. His nervousness
sprang from fear. If one of these so-called gods had appeared, why not
two, or four, or a dozen? The Tarthan swordsman, well up on the
principles of discretion, felt a sudden urge to be quit of this
locality.

It was indeed a disconcerting place. Brown folk, the identity and
origin of which he knew not. A white creature with steel hands
appearing from nowhere. What would the next manifestation be?

The dark warrior moved swiftly toward his waiting stad. He mounted and
rode away and not until the figures about the well were tiny spots
almost beyond range of his vision, did he again breathe easily.



CHAPTER VIII

_The Brown Virgin_


Bram Forest moved from unconscious into a dark half-world of pain and
frustration. He felt his flame-seared body to be hanging upon the edge
of a black abyss into which he could neither fall nor draw away from.

At times, it seemed, gentle hands reached out to explore but were
without the strength to draw him back from the perilous precipice upon
which he hung.

There was an endless time of balance in this dark half-world and then
the thick blackness faded to a gray, the precipice seemed to draw away
of its own volition, and the pain within him lessened.

He opened his eyes.

He was lying on a bed of soft, cool moss in a semi-dark cavern with
the sound of tinkling water in the distance. He lay staring at the
ceiling for a long time, wondering into what manner of place he had
come and how. Then his keen ears caught the sound of breathing other
than his own; a soft breathing that fell gently upon his senses and
calmed rather than alerted him.

He turned his head and saw a beautiful, naked brown-skinned girl
kneeling nearby but beyond his reach. He was struck first by the
beauty of her face and form and then by the fact that she was not as
completely brown as his first impression had given him to believe. Her
breasts and loins were of pure white and droplets of shining water ran
down her body.

She was in the act of replacing a sort of leather harness upon her
person and Bram Forest realized she had just returned from bathing at
whatever place the unseen water gurgled and laughed and that she was
now dressing herself.

He held his peace until the act was completed, not wishing to
embarrass her by making his consciousness known while she was nude.

After a few moments, the harness was in place and she rose to stand
erect and shake out her dark shining hair. Bram Forest chose this time
to speak. "I do not know who you are, but I am obviously in your debt.
My gratitude."

The girl reacted like a startled fawn and drew back several paces.
"You have regained consciousness?"

"It seems so. Where is this place and how came I here?"

"We brought you."

Bram Forest's brow furrowed in thought. "Oh, yes. Now I remember.
There were a group of people such as you at the place I tried to fight
the dark swordsman with his own weapons." Bram Forest chuckled
ruefully. "It seems I did not fare so well."

"When we discovered you were not our god, the others wanted to leave
you there to die but I resisted this as being inhuman and made them
bring you here."

"Where are the rest?"

"They have returned."

"Returned whence?"

The girl lowered her beautiful head sadly. "That I cannot tell you."

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest smiled. "Be not so sad. The fact that you prefer to keep
the information to yourself is no reason for near-tears."

"I am not sad for that reason, sire."

"Then why?"

"Because you asked the question and are even more surely therefore,
not our god."

Bram Forest was deeply curious and half-amused at the trend of this
conversation. "Tell me this, then. Why does my asking the question
eliminate all possibility of my being your god?"

"Because if you were the god we seek and yearn for, you would not have
to ask where my people went. You would know."

"Instead of clarifying the situation," Bram Forest mused, "each
question sends me deeper and deeper into a mental labyrinth."

"We risked our lives in going to the place you found us. It was
forbidden to credit the ancient legend of our people. Therefore--"

"What legend?"

"That upon this day and at that place our god would appear to deliver
us."

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest, now desperately seeking a question that would clarify
rather than further befuddle, held up his hand. "Wait. If you expected
a god to appear and I arrived on schedule, how can you be so sure that
I am not he?"

"We thought so when you advanced upon the hideous Abarian and took his
throat in your great hands. But when you not only allowed him to live
but also suffered him to take up his whip-sword and come within an
eyelash of killing you, we knew you were not our god."

Bram Forest nodded with understanding. "I can see now how stupid that
act was. Certainly not a manner in which a genuine god would conduct
himself." He glanced at the girl and smiled. "Please come closer that
I may see you better."

She moved her head in the negative, reluctantly, Bram Forest thought,
and replied, "If you were our god I would gladly place myself in your
power to do with me as you would, but as you are mortal, I must remain
away from you."

Bram Forest frowned. "Again things get murky."

"I am a virgin," the beautiful girl explained simply and with no
self-consciousness whatever. "I must remain so until my time is
ordained. If I lost my virginity, even through violation that I
resist, I would immediately be delivered into the Golden Ape."

Bram Forest came upright, causing the girl to retreat a step further
in alarm. "The Golden Ape, did you say?"

"Yes."

"And you are a virgin--"

This last was a statement rather than a question as Bram Forest sank
back, his eyes misty with thought. "An ape, a boar, a stallion--" he
pondered. "A virgin's feast--"

The girl eyed him with concern. "Are you sure that your wound has not
caused--"

"It is not that," he said, switching his mind back to things of the
moment. "I'm just wondering--might you tell me your name without
breaking any rules of reticence?"

       *       *       *       *       *

"I am Ylia," she said with a childlike solemnity that touched Bram
Forest.

"And does Ylia never smile?"

It seemed to him she made an effort to do this but was so unfamiliar
with the expression that she could not manage it.

He extended a hand, not disconcerted that she did not come close and
take it. He said, "Ylia, I would not again ask a question you did not
wish to answer before. But I am mightily puzzled about the life you
must have led--about that manner of males you have had contact with.
They are certainly a miserable lot if a female of their race must look
to her virtue every waking moment.

"As for me, Ylia--and please believe--I would no more touch you in
desire than I would knowingly injure a child. You are safe in my
presence as in the most guarded room of a nunnery."

If he expected gratitude or a pat on the back for his nobility, he was
rudely surprised. Ylia straightened, her young breasts protruding
gracefully and if she did not react with anger, her face mirrored
something close to it.

"Then I am not desirable?"

Bram Forest blinked. "I did not say that. You are one of the fairest I
have ever set eyes upon."

This puzzled Ylia completely. "Then in the name of the Golden Ape,
why--?"

Bram Forest raised his hand with a gesture of both interruption and
surrender. "Please! Let us pursue this subject no further. The waters
grow deep and I suspect quicksand at their bottom. There are questions
in my mind. Allow me to bring them forth with the understanding that
you do not have to answer any you do not wish to."

It was evident that Ylia's mind was also a bag of conundrums relative
to this late candidate for godhood who had insulted her desirability
and yet complimented her upon it at the same time. She moved forward
and sat gracefully down near the moss resting place of her patient.

Bram Forest was aware of her tenseness. She was like a beautiful
animal ready to spring away at the first sign of hostile movement on
his part. But he also got the impression that coming within reach of
his arms thrilled her. He believed this even while knowing that she
would have fought like a tigress against any advance upon his part.

He said, "Ylia, you are indeed a strange child. You remained here
after your people left and brought me back from the brink of death
even with the fear that I would rise up and violate you as soon as I
acquired the strength to do so. Your thought processes are difficult
to understand."

Ylia lowered her eyes. "You wished to ask some questions, sire."

"My name is Bram Forest. The _sire_ ill-becomes you."

"Bram--Forest," she murmured experimentally. Then she raised her eyes
and there dawned upon her face the most brilliant of smiles. Her look
was one of both dignity and gratitude. "You do me much honor, Bram
Forest!"

"Honor? I fail to understand."

Ylia's eyes glowed proudly. "Why, you treat me with such respect that
I could be even Volna herself!"

"And who is this Volna?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Ylia was startled at this strange man's ignorance. "Why, everyone on
Tarth knows of Volna, Princess of Nadia, sister of Bontarc, who is
Prince of Nadia and ruler of that great nation. She is the most
exquisitely beautiful woman ever to be born on Tarth."

"Fancy that," Bram Forest said with a lack of enthusiasm that proved
marked disinterest. "I'm afraid I've never had the pleasure of the
lady's acquaintance, nor of her illustrious brother, either."

Ylia lowered her eyes in sadness. "She was also the sister of Jlomec."

"And who, pray is Jlomec?"

"I thought you knew since you tried to avenge his death. He was the
Nadian the cruel Abarian Retoc slew under your very eyes."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Bram Forest said. But the cowardly death had
been accomplished and Bram Forest's mind did not dwell upon it as he
could not see where it affected him one way or another.

"Ylia," he said, "take it as a supposition that I was born this very
moment and know nothing of this world or its customs. With that in
mind, tell me of it--the things you would tell a wondering child."

She glanced at him strangely. "I will tell you all that I am not bound
to hold secret."

"I would not wish to know more."

The beautiful Ylia leaned forward, so preoccupied with the task she
had set herself that all her reserve and wariness left her. Her action
brought her lowered head close to Bram Forest's face and the sweet
smell of her newly washed and shining hair was in his nostrils. Then
he also became preoccupied with the map Ylia was drawing on the floor
of the cavern.

Long they sat thus, Ylia enjoying her task and Bram Forest's facile
mind drawing in each syllable she spoke and committing it to memory.

Finally the sun lowered and the interior of the cavern darkened until
they could no longer see each other. The most important conviction
Bram Forest arrived at from Ylia's discourse was indeed a startling
one. He was certain that this Tarth was a twin planet to Earth of
which there was complete knowledge in his mind. He could hardly escape
the fact that Tarth swung in an orbit exactly opposite to that of its
more familiar counterpart, thus remaining invisible from it.

This conviction came to him through several things Ylia said and it
was buttressed by a bit of Tarthan mythology she chanced to mention.
The legend told of a flame-god, obviously the sun, which stood forth
in its wrath one long-distant day and hurled two great stones at a
demon who came from far away bent upon torment. This last Bram Forest
thought, was perhaps a comet of great size that tore both worlds from
the sun and set them upon their orbits. The existence of the
mythological legend indicated too, that civilization on Tarth was not
backward or at least had not been in ages gone.

In the more exact realm, Bram Forest learned that Tarth was far less
watery than its invisible sister, scarcely half its surface consisting
of ocean. It had two ice caps at the poles, known as the Outer Reaches
and an equator termed the Inner Belt.

       *       *       *       *       *

There were no isolated continents according to Ylia's map, all the dry
surfaces being connected by wide passages of land through the
continuous ocean.

Ylia's description of the people interested Bram Forest most
intensely. On Tarth, he learned, there was no association of nations,
each mistrusting the others in a world where a state of continuous war
at some point of the globe was an accepted state of affairs which no
one sought to ameliorate.

Ylia herself was hazy upon the description and number of the nations.
She thought some two hundred existed but only the most important could
she describe.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Abarians were the most successfully warlike, fearing only the
Nadians to the south. This because though the Nadians were not
aggressive and even treated other lesser nations in a kindly fashion,
they possessed an inherent fighting skill and a power potential that
had not been tested in recallable history. Though they had not fought
for centuries, their potential had not lessened because such a folly
would have been considered tantamount to national suicide on Tarth.

There were also the Utalians that Bram Forest visualized as some sort
of lizard men for the reason that they possessed the defensive
characteristics of the chameleon. There was also another intriguing
race, no member of which Ylia had ever seen. She referred to them as
the Twin People of Coom, an area near the north Outer Reach. Bram
Forest speculated upon what manner of people they would be and it came
to him that the evolutionary processes on Tarth had not corresponded
to those of Earth, where all members of the human race evolved into
practically the same form.

Then a name came into Bram Forest's mind; a name that rose out of that
mysterious well of knowledge in his subconscious; a well he could not
explain but had been forced to accept. He no longer questioned it.

"Tell me of the Ofridians."

Ylia started as though he had slapped her. The deep brown of her
beautiful face paled somewhat and her eyes grew very sad.

Bram Forest saw the sadness by the light of the moon, that had risen
and was sending wan light in through the cavern's entrance. He only
sensed the paleness from the tremor of Ylia's voice. "It grows late. I
must go and bring food. Your strength must be nurtured and
greatened."

With that, she hurried off in the direction of the sounding water,
leaving Bram Forest both bewildered and intrigued. Why had she reacted
so violently to his question? And for that matter, why had he been
able to ask the question in the first place? By what process did he
know the name _Ofrid_ and that it designated a nation on Tarth,
without knowing of that nation and already possessing the knowledge
for which he had begged the patient and beautiful Ylia?

Then he remembered that he had resolved not to wonder about these
things--and at the same instant, remembered something else.

The small, flat package that had fallen from the box back on Earth. It
had been his first thought upon regaining consciousness near the
Ofridian well but it had been pushed from his mind by subsequent
events.

How long ago had that been? He tried to assess the passage of time but
failed. The only indication of its length was the fact that he bore no
wound where the Abarian's blade had entered his body. That pointed to
a long span of unconsciousness but perhaps there were contributing
factors.

       *       *       *       *       *

He had sensed that the mysterious Ylia had at her command something
that had healed him very swiftly but he had no proof of this.

At any rate, he had to retrieve the package if possible. But would it
be possible? Granted the strange disc had brought him somehow from
Earth to Tarth, would it repeat the process in the opposite direction?

He resolved to find out and began unbuckling the disc from its place
on his right wrist.

As he did this a sound manifested outside the cavern but he was so
intent upon his task that he gave little note. Quickly, he strapped
the disc into its potent position on his left wrist. Then he sat
tensely awaiting the reaction.

As he waited, the sound without became so pronounced he could no
longer ignore it. He raised his head and saw a tall, sinister form
outlined against the moonlight. He was unable to distinguish the
features, but the outline told a sickening truth. Also the drawn
whip-sword spoke eloquently of who this intruder was.

The Abarian of the Ofridian well in search of prey. The cowardly
assassin who would now enter and find a defenseless man and a
beautiful girl who would set him aflame with lust.

Rage threw a red curtain over Bram Forest's eyes as he struggled up to
meet the intruder. But the latter never saw him because at that moment
the now-familiar nausea seized Bram Forest's vitals, doubling him
over.

And when the Abarian had advanced into the cavern, he found only an
empty bed of moss, Bram Forest having been snatched up and whirled
into darkness by the relentless hand of time put into terrifying
motion.



CHAPTER IX

_In Custody_


Bram Forest regained consciousness upon a grassy slope across which
slanted the rays of a setting sun. The same sun that had warmed him
upon the planet Tarth--of this he was certain.

He arose and glanced about quickly, realizing--while he was sure he
had returned to Earth--that he could be many miles from the mysterious
mansion under which he had spent one hundred years.

[Illustration: Screaming, Ylia offered her own body in defense of her
loved one.]

At first his heart sank because the terrain was not at all familiar.
Then it rose again as he saw the tower of the gray mansion pushing
somberly above the line of the forest top. He stood for a moment,
orienting himself with the tower the center of his calculations. Then
he moved out of the glade toward his right.

But he had gone scarcely ten feet into the wooded area when his
sharpened instincts gave him quick warning and he dropped like a stone
and lay still.

The sound of footsteps greatened until their echo came loud in his
ears and a man passed not ten feet from his outstretched hands.

The man wore the blue uniform and smart cap of a state trooper and he
was on the alert but not so much so as to detect the silent Bram
Forest.

The latter, with the first moment he had had to give thought to
himself since he had awakened in the cavern on the Plains of Ofrid,
realized suddenly that he was no longer naked. He had of course been
vaguely aware of this before but now he gave it his attention and
realized what had happened. He focused on past events.

       *       *       *       *       *

During his time of unconsciousness from the treacherous Abarian's
blade thrust, the beautiful Ylia had garbed him in the brilliant
uniform of the slain Nadian, Jlomec. This uniform was both colorful
and practical but it did nothing to either hide or encumber the great
muscles of his chest and arms, thighs.

The State Trooper passed on his way and Bram Forest wondered what he
was doing about the old mansion. But this did not occupy his thoughts
for long. As soon as the way was clear, he moved like a great cat
through the underbrush toward the spot from whence he had made his
exodus to the planet Tarth. As he skirted the last glade, he prayed
that the second article in the box containing the fabulous disc he had
now switched to his right wrist, still lay where he had carelessly
dropped it.

He came to the edge of the open field and warily surveyed the terrain.
No one was in sight. He strained his ears for the sound of any
approaching footsteps and heard nothing. He sprang swiftly into the
open and ran across the field.

It was there--the flat white package--exactly where he had dropped it
that first morning. He swept it up, intent upon returning to the
shelter of the forest.

But his interest in what lay beneath the white paper wrapping had
grown to such a point of intensity that his footsteps lagged, his
attention riveted upon the tantalizing thing, and he came to a full
stop mid-field while his strong fingers tore at the wrappings.

The white parchment came away and Bram Forest stared at what was
revealed. Then a strange and terrifying change came over him. His
handsome features contorted as every drop of blood was drained from
his face. His great frame shook as with an illness and such a
demoniacal rage came over him as few people in this or any other world
have seen.

Now a great and terrifying cry arose from his throat; a cry that make
even the beasts of this forest freeze in their tracks and crouch lower
in their places of concealment. A cry of such rage and agony that even
the trees of the forest seemed to pause and listen in mute wonder....

       *       *       *       *       *

Mulcahey Davis, State Trooper, picked brambles from the legs of his
blue uniform and cursed his assignment in no uncertain terms.

Why in the name of law and decency had he and Mowbray been ordered to
patrol this tangled, deserted spook-hole? Sure--the body of some old
hobo had been found in a well with rocks thrown on it but what were he
and Mowbray going to prove by tramping around through these brambles?

Mulcahey Davis heard footsteps and looked up to see Mowbray laboring
across the last few yards of his beat. Mowbray broke from the last
clutching strands of thorn bush and began beating burrs from his legs.
"Find anything?" he asked.

"Not a blasted thing. It's downright crazy, our clambering around this
woods. What will we find? A couple of rabbits?"

"That body in the well has to be investigated," Mowbray said,
seriously. "Pretty odd deal."

"What progress have they made?"

"They've located the outfit that held this place in trust, but the guy
in charge had a stroke or something. He can't be questioned. They may
never be able to question him. An old guy named Pride. He's in pretty
bad shape."

"Chances are he wouldn't know anything about it even if they could ask
him. What would he have been doing out here?"

"There's that funny fire in the basement, too. Nothing routine about
that. Fire so hot it melted rock. A lot of unanswered questions
here."

"If they'd ask me, I'd tell them--"

Mulcahey Davis' throat froze as a terrible cry smote his ears. Mowbray
paled suddenly and the two men looked at each other in instinctive
fear.

But they were tried and tested law-enforcement officers and were not
held in the grip of terror for long. "Did you hear that?" Mulcahey
Davis said.

"Good lord, man! How could I help it!"

"Where'd it come from?"

"Over there."

"Let's go."

The two troopers plunged again into the undergrowth to emerge at the
edge of an open field. And regardless of their personal courage and
experience in their line of effort, what they saw froze them anew.

A giant of a man--a creature of godlike proportions stood in the open
field, washed by the rays of the setting sun. His great arms were held
aloft and he was looking up into the sky with a terrifying expression
that was a mixture of pain and rage.

He was speaking and his great voice echoed in what was remindful of a
thunderous prayer. "I know not the purpose for which I was created but
well do I now know my dedicated task. Vengeance! Vengeance such as
this world or any other has never seen!"

With this the giant--clad in a strange colorful uniform of some
sort--dropped to his knees and lowered his great head into his hands.

Mowbray's face was grim and alert. "Come on," he whispered. "We're
behind him so we get a break. Move in quietly. And let's get him
before he sees us. I've got a hunch he could lick ten of us and we
don't want to use our guns."

They crossed the field softly and moved in behind the kneeling man.
They acted in concert with an expertness telling of lengthy
experience.

Mowbray was thankful for the way it turned out. He knew not why the
giant put up no resistance. The man seemed stunned as from a great
blow and before he could recover, the troopers had him bound hand and
foot with their belts.

Mulcahey Davis got to his feet and wiped the sweat from his face.
"There's one for the psychos and a padded cell afterwards."

"You said it," Mowbray agreed heartily. "Let's take him in."



CHAPTER X

_The Road to Nadia_


The stads of Abaria, like the masters who rode them, were
ill-accustomed to the clear cold air of Nadia. They snorted visible
jets of vapor into the crisp air as their splayed feet scratched and
slipped, seeking purchase on the ice-covered, up-tilted rocky plain.

"It's an accursed country, lord," Hultax told the king of the Abarians
as their steeds advanced shoulder and shoulder.

Retoc sat tall and straight on the stad's broad back, his black cloak
with the royal emblem billowing in the stiff wind, his hard handsome
face ruddy with the cold air, his cruel eyes mere slits against the
Nadian wind. "Quiet, you fool," he admonished Hultax. "Everything we
Abarians say and do in Nadia must be sweetness and light--now."

The vanguard of the long column of Abarian riders had reached a
rushing mountain stream, its waters too swift to freeze in the
sub-zero temperature. Lifting one hand overhead, Retoc called a halt.

"They'll find out, lord," Hultax persisted. "They'll find out what you
did. I know they will. They'll find out it was you who killed Jlomec,
their ruler's brother."

Retoc smiled. The smile made Hultax' blood run cold, for he had seen
such a smile before--when Retoc witnessed the execution of disloyal
Abarian subjects. The smile hardened on Retoc's face, as if it had
frozen there in the cold Nadian wind. "Dismount your steed," he said
in a soft voice which only Hultax heard.

Trembling, Hultax obeyed his master's command. His stad, suddenly
riderless, pawed nervously at the frost-hardened ground on the edge of
the stream. Retoc withdrew his whip-sword and fondled the
jewel-encrusted haft. "If you ever say that again, here in Nadia or
elsewhere, I will kill you," he warned his lieutenant.

"But the brown girl--"

"The brown girl be damned!" roared Retoc in sudden fury.

"We haven't been able to find her. That day at the cave, she came
rushing out, lord, while you--"

"I was detained," Retoc said, some of the passion gone from his voice.
He would never forget the sight of the iron-thewed young man, who once
had almost strangled him, growing suddenly, incredibly transparent,
then disappearing. He had stood there, whip-sword in hand, mouth
agape, while the brown girl ran past him and--according to what Hultax
had told him later--mounted his own stad and vanished across the
Ofridian plain.

"But lord, don't you see?" Hultax demanded. "The brown girl knows what
happened to Jlomec, prince of the royal Nadian blood. If she attends
the royal funeral. She will--"

Retoc laughed. Hultax blanched. He had heard such laughter when
enemies of Retoc and thus of Abaria had died in pain. "Fool, fool!" he
heard Retoc say now. "Think you a bedraggled wayfaring maid of the
Ofridian desert will be invited to the funeral of a prince of the
Nadian royal blood?"

"Nevertheless, sire," Hultax persisted, "that day at the cave I took
the liberty to send three of our best stadsmen after the girl with
orders to capture her or kill her on sight."

Slowly, as a thaw spreads in spring over the broad Nadian ice fields,
Retoc smiled at his second in command. Hultax too let his face relax
into a grateful grin: until now he had been teetering on the brink of
violent death, and he knew it.

"You may mount," Retoc said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hastily Hultax climbed astride his stad. Retoc lifted his arm overhead
and made a circular motion with his outstretched hand. The first of
the Abarian stads advanced with some reluctance into the swift cold
shallow water of the stream.

"What about the white giant?" Hultax asked unwisely when the entire
party had reached the other side and Retoc was urging his stad up the
slippery bank.

"Have your scouts been able to find the wayfarers who saw him?"

"No, sire. Only the girl nursed him back to health. The others fled."

"And wisely. They have learned to hold their tongues, as you should
learn, Hultax. They will give us no trouble. As far as they are
concerned, there is no white giant."

"But there is talk of what happened at the Tower, and of Portox'
wizardry, and a god who would return, full-grown in exactly a hundred
years--"

"Shut up!" Retoc cried, almost screaming the words.

But that night at the Abarian encampment a day and a half's march
from Nadia city, Retoc dreamed of Queen Evalla, the lovely Ofridian
ruler whose slow death by torture he had relished as the final act of
his utter destruction of the once proud Ofridian nation. Evalla in the
dream seemed happy and confident. Retoc awoke sweating although frigid
winds howled over the Nadian ice-fields. Her confidence sent unknown
fear through him.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Really, it's quite simple," the superbly-muscled prisoner said in the
language which was not his own but which he could speak as well as a
native. "You see, it wasn't simple at all until I saw what was in the
package, but it's quite simple now. In the package was a picture of my
mother, the dead Queen Evalla. I am her son. I am of the royal blood.
When I saw the picture, it suddenly triggered my memory-responses, as
Portox had arranged. Then--"

"What about the old guy in the well?" the trooper asked
unimaginatively.

"I'm sorry. I can't answer your questions now. I have to return to my
home. The handful of wayfarers who alone are left of a once great
nation are waiting for vengeance. I will...."

His voice trailed on, earnestly, politely. The trooper looked at the
man from the state mental hospital, who shook his head slowly. They
left the powerful, polite prisoner in his cell and went through the
corridor to the prison office.

"Real weirdy, huh, doc?" the trooper said.

"A--uh--weirdy to you, but rather cut and dry to me, I'm afraid," Dr.
Slonamn said. "Delusions of grandeur and delusions of persecution.
Advanced paranoia, I'm afraid."

"It's funny, doc. When they took everything away from him he might
hurt himself with, he didn't mind at all. Only the bracelet. Three
strong men had to hold him when they took the bracelet."

"Bracelet?" Dr. Slonamn said.

"We got it in the office. I'll show you."

The bracelet turned out to be a small, mesh-metal strap as wide around
as a big man's upper arm. Attached to the strap was a disc of silvery
metal.

"You'd think it was worth a million bucks," the trooper said.

Dr. Slonamn nodded sagely. "Paranoid. It helps confirm the diagnosis.
You see, out of touch with the real world, a paranoid can attach great
value to utterly worthless objects. Well, I'll write out my report,
sergeant."

"Captain Caruthers said to thank you, sir."

"Not at all. Part of my job."

Meanwhile, back in his cell, the prisoner, big hands gripping the bars
so tight that his knuckles were white, was thinking: _I've got to make
them understand. Somehow I've got to make them understand before it's
too late._

He closed his eyes, lost in intense thought. When he did so, an image
swam before his mind's eye. He did not know how this could be, but
ascribed it to more of the dead Portox' magic.

What he saw was the barren ice fields of Nadia, with several great
caravans making their slow way across the bleak blazing whiteness
toward Nadia City. As was the custom in Nadia, the prisoner--whose
name was Bram Forest--knew, great funeral games would be held to honor
the memory of the late beloved Prince Jlomec. And it was here in
frigid Nadia, at such a time as this, when all the royal blood of all
the royal households of Tarth gathered, the wizardry of Portox seemed
to tell him, that vengeance would come. Here, if only....

_Ylia!_

The image blurred. He had seen her once. His knuckles went white as
bleached bone on the bars. He concentrated every atom of his will.
_Ylia, Ylia!_ But now with his eyes shut he saw nothing. With his eyes
opened, only the bars of his cell and the cell-block corridor beyond.
_Ylia, Ylia! Hear me. There is danger on the road to Nadia. Ylia...._



CHAPTER XI

_On the Ice Fields of Nadia_


B'ronth the Utalian left footprints in the snow.

Otherwise, B'ronth was invisible. But if a hidden observer watched the
Utalian's slow progress across the ice fields of Nadia he would see
where the ice was soft or where snow had fallen during the night into
the gullies, the unexpected, mysterious appearance of footprints, a
left staggered after a right, then another left, then a right again,
then a left.

Actually, B'ronth the Utalian was not invisible. But like all
Utalians, he was a chameleon of a man. Within seconds his skin would
assume the color of its environment, utterly and completely. Thus,
from above B'ronth the Utalian was the dazzling white of the Nadian
ice-fields; from below, looking up at the pale cloudless sky, he was
cold, transparent blue.

All morning he had been trailing the girl. He had reached her camp on
the road to Nadia only moments after she had quit it in company with
an old man. From the tattered snow cloaks they wore, they both clearly
were wayfarers. B'ronth could have challenged them at once, sprinting
across the ice toward them, but he hadn't done that. B'ronth the
Utalian was a coward. He accepted the fact objectively: his people
were notorious cowards. The proper time would come, he told himself.
There would come a time when the girl and the old man were helpless.
Then he, B'ronth, would strike.

The day before an Abarian warrior had given him a description of the
girl and had promised him a bag of gold for her capture, half a bag of
gold if he killed her and could prove it. A bag of gold, he thought.
He would take her alive. It was a long, cold road to Nadia City. True,
B'ronth the Utalian was small of stature, a puny creature like all his
people. And there were certain disadvantages in his perfect
camouflage. He was walking naked across the ice-fields in order to
remain unseen. His flesh shivered and his bones were stiff. But a
Nadian boy named Lulukee, whom B'ronth had promised half the gold, was
not many minutes' march behind him with warm clothing, food, and
drink. After he captured the girl....

       *       *       *       *       *

Invisible, he mounted a rise where solid sheet ice adhered to the
shoulder of a rocky hill. Below him, traversing a snow-floored valley
and so far away that they were mere dots against the snow, were the
old man and the girl.

B'ronth the Utalian chuckled. The sound was swept up instantly and
dispersed by the wind. It was a cold wind and it all but froze B'ronth
to the marrow, but the Nadian sun was surprisingly warm and now seemed
to beam down on him with promise of his golden reward. Shivering both
from cold and delight, the invisible Utalian walked swiftly down into
the snow-mantled valley.

There would be a trail of footprints for the boy Lulukee to
follow....

       *       *       *       *       *

"Cold, Hammeth?" Ylia asked her companion.

"No, girl. I'll manage if you will. Is it much further?"

"Half a day's march to Nadia City yet, I'm afraid," Ylia said. "We
could rest if you wish."

The man was extremely old by Tarthian standards, probably three
hundred and fifty years old. He wore a snow-cape of _purullian_ fur
which the wind whipped about his bony frame and up over his completely
bald head. "I'm sorry, Ylia," he said suddenly. There were tears in
his eyes which the cold and the wind did not explain.

"What for? You came to the cave. You accompanied me here to Nadia."

"When Retoc the Abarian almost killed the White God, I fled with the
others."

"If you didn't flee you too might have been slain, Hammeth."

"Yet you remained behind."

"He still lived. Someone had to tend him."

Hammeth's breath came in shallow gasps. He once had been a strong, big
man, but the life and the strength had fled his frame when Retoc
destroyed Ofrid, a hundred years before. As a wayfarer on the Plains
of Ofrid, he had aged in those hundred years. And he had shrunk and
shriveled with approaching senility. "Tell me, Ylia," he asked,
panting, "is this Bram Forest you speak of indeed the--the god of the
legend? The God of the Tower come to right the ancient wrongs?"

A frown marred the beauty of Ylia's matchless face. "At first," she
said with a far-away look in her lovely eyes, "at first I thought he
was. Hadn't he come, suddenly, from nowhere, at the ordained moment?
But then when he did not slay Retoc, when instead he allowed Retoc the
use of his whip-sword and was almost slain by Retoc, when he bled like
any mortal, when he--" All at once Ylia was blushing.

"What is it, child?" Hammeth asked.

"Nothing. It is nothing."

"Ylia. You were the infant daughter of a lady in waiting of the royal
court of Ofrid. I was a captain of the Queen's Guards. When Retoc's
legions brought their death and destruction, I fled to the wilderness
with you. I raised you from infancy. I--" the old man's eyes clouded
over with emotion--"you have no secrets from me, child."

Ylia was still blushing. But a serene smile replaced the frown on her
face. "Very well, Father Hammeth, I will tell you. There in the cave
as I nursed the stranger back to health, as he grew stronger and could
move about, as we conversed and came to know each other, I--I desired
him."

Hammeth said nothing. His face was stern.

"Please," said Ylia, laughing now that her secret was out. "It wasn't
the kind of desire that could make me a candidate for the Golden Ape,
but--I desired him. It was a pure, sweet emotion, such as I have never
felt before. I wanted him. I wanted to serve him. I wanted to spend my
life helping him and ... Hammeth ... Father Hammeth ... loving him.
There, I have said it."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hammeth only muttered. They plodded on through the snow, which here
was deep and powdery so they floundered sometimes to their knees.

"But a girl shouldn't feel such desire for a god, so I told myself he
was mortal." Abruptly and for no reason that Hammeth could fathom,
Ylia began to cry.

"What is it, child? What is it?"

"He--he fled. He had lost much blood and he was weak, yes, but he
didn't even stay to protect me. He fled from Retoc. Is that a god? Is
that even a man who can bring retribution to Retoc? Is it, Hammeth? Is
it?"

"Yet you're taking the road to Nadia even as legend says the White God
will take the road to Nadia."

"Nonsense," said Ylia, wiping away her tears. "Someone has to tell the
Nadians what really happened to poor Jlomec, that's all. Retoc, Retoc
will have them eating off his hand. He'll have them believing whatever
he says. They'll never know that he killed a prince of their royal
blood."

"But what can Bontarc of Nadia--or anyone--do against the power of
Retoc's Abarians?"

"The White God could--"

"Ah, you see? Then perhaps you do believe, after all."

"The White God or whoever he was," said Ylia coldly, "fled a coward
from Retoc." She pouted. "And yet, and yet he seemed so confused."

"Perhaps he fled so that the Ofridians might live again in the pride
of their greatness," Hammeth declared with vehemence.

"You believe, don't you, Father Hammeth?" Ylia asked simply.

"I want to believe, child."

"You're panting so. You're tired. We'll have to stop and rest."

They were traversing the deepest part of the valley where the Nadian
wind, funneling through between the hills flanking the depression, had
piled the snow into drifts twice the height of a man. They hunkered
down in the lee of one of the snow-drifts, where the wind could not
reach them. With stiff fingers Ylia withdrew strips of jerked stadmeat
from the inside pocket of her snow cloak, sharing them with Hammeth.
They munched the tough cold meat, Ylia looking at the old man with
tenderness and affection. Her foster father, he had been the only
parent she had ever known. She closed her eyes and for a moment
thought back over the years they had spent as wayfarers on the
Ofridian Plain, the years dreaming of revenge and succor which would
never come, the years....

"Ylia! Ylia!"

Father Hammeth was calling her name, urgently. She shook herself from
her reverie. They were seated with their backs to one of the great
snow-drifts, where it fell off suddenly like a suspended, frozen sea
wave. With a trembling hand Hammeth was pointing before him, out
across the ice fields.

There in the soft snow which mantled the ice of Nadia to a depth of
only a few inches, were footprints. They were not old prints,
deposited there when some wayfarer had passed. Incredibly, they were
being made even as Hammeth and Ylia watched, as if by some creature
with no palpable existence. The icy wind seemed intensified.

       *       *       *       *       *

"It--it's coming toward us," Hammeth said, his voice a croaking
whisper. Ylia knew that he was afraid again. Somehow with the
advancing years, the steel and fire had gone from Hammeth's heart. Or
perhaps, she thought in sympathy, the terrible defeat and destruction
of Ofrid a hundred years ago had done this to him, had turned one of
the Queen's proven champions into an aging craven wayfarer.

"We'll have to flee," Hammeth said breathlessly.

Behind them was the frozen wave of snow. To the right, far away across
the snows, Abaria and the Plains of Ofrid. To the left, not half a
day's journey, Nadia City. Ahead of them, the advancing footprints.

"Your whip-sword!" Ylia cried. "Quickly."

"I carry it, but I can't use it now," Hammeth protested. "I'm an old
man, Ylia. An old man."

"Then let me have it."

"You? But you're just a girl. You couldn't--"

"Don't you see, Father Hammeth? It's only a man. An Utalian. It can't
be anything else. If he comes in peace, well enough. Otherwise ...
here, give me that sword."

But Hammeth shook his head with unexpected pride and pulled the weapon
from its scabbard.

Just then the footprints became wider spaced and appeared more quickly
in the snow. The invisible Utalian was running toward them. Awkward,
cursing at his own impotence, Hammeth fumbled with his weapon.

_You who call yourself Bram Forest_, Ylia thought, _White God or
whatever you are--help us, help us_! Then she hated herself for the
unbidden thought. Bram Forest had deserted her once, hadn't he, after
she had saved his life? What help could she expect from a man like
Bram Forest? Or was Father Hammeth right? Perhaps Bram Forest had fled
so that Ofrid might one day live again to see the wrath of the gods
fall on Retoc and his Abarians.

Or, Ylia thought with an abrupt flash of insight, perhaps Bram
Forest's flight had been out of his control. Perhaps he was as yet a
pawn in a game he barely understood....

_Bram Forest, we need you!_

The running footprints were almost upon them.



CHAPTER XII

_Volna the Beautiful_


Bram Forest had been day-dreaming.

Ylia? Hadn't Ylia been calling his name? But how could that be? Ylia
was almost two hundred million miles away. Clearly, as long as they
kept the magic disc away from him, he could never see Ylia again. And
besides, now that he had been vouchsafed a vision of his dead mother,
the former queen of Ofrid, and now that that vision had conjured up
the entire tragic past for him, why was it that when he shut his eyes
and allowed the bright sun to beat down on the lids through the cell
window he saw an image of the sun-browned maid, Ylia?

Could it be, he asked himself, wondering if somehow he were profaning
the memory of the mother he had never known, that Ylia stood not for
the past but for the present and the future, and that it was in the
present and the unknown future that Bram Forest must live and do his
life's work and perhaps perish, although he was motivated from the
past?

A guard brought food on a tray. The cell door clanged open, the tray
was delivered, the cell door clanged shut. The guard did not pay
particular attention to Bram Forest: he had been a docile enough
prisoner.

Ylia, he thought.

He knew he must escape next time the guard brought food.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dr. Slonamn held up the bracelet with the metal disc on it and stared
curiously at the contraption. He was a psychologist, he could hardly
consider himself an expert on metallurgy. Still, he had never seen a
metal like that from which the disc had been fashioned. It seemed too
opaque for steel, too hard for silver. A steel and silver alloy, then?
But he had never heard of a steel and silver alloy.

He held it up to the light. Like a fly's many-faceted eye it threw
back manifold images of--himself. Somehow, it made him dizzy to gaze
at the images. He drew his eyes away and had an impulse to fling the
strange disc away across the room.

The sun was going down. He heard a clattering from the prison kitchen
as the evening meal was prepared. Tomorrow, he thought, should see the
completion of his work here. Another interview with the paranoid giant
who had brought the disc, perhaps. The disc fascinated him.

He looked at it again. He didn't want to, and recognized the strange
compulsion within himself. Then, before he quite realized it, he was
staring at his multiple image again. His senses swam. There was a
far-away rustling sound like--the words came unbidden to his mind from
a poem by Kipling--like the wind that blows between the worlds. He
gazed again at the disc. It seemed to draw him, as a magnet draws iron
filings. Now he wanted to fight it, wanted to fight with every ounce
of his strength. A wave of giddiness swept over him, leaving nausea in
its wake. He clutched at the prison-office desk for support. The
rustling grew louder.

He saw--or thought he saw--a girl, a lovely, sun-bronzed girl. There
was a look of fear on her face. She seemed to be crying out for help.

An abyss yawned before his feet, before his very soul. He longed
despite himself to plunge into the abyss, whatever the fearful
consequences might be. He lurched back, fighting the longing. Yet he
knew he wouldn't win. He took a step forward....

"Give it to me!"

The voice, urgent, distant, beckoned him back to reality. It seemed a
great distance off, but it was something to which he could hold.

"Give me that disc!"

He felt himself dragged roughly back, saw the abyss retreating. The
rustling of the wind between the worlds became distant, a sound
imagined rather than heard.

"Give it to me!"

       *       *       *       *       *

He blinked. The nausea had washed over him. He felt weak, drained,
exhausted. But the substantial reality of the prison office surrounded
him.

The young giant stood before him, strapping the bracelet which held
the disc on his powerful arm. A look of intense concentration was on
his face. His skin was bathed with sweat although it was cool in the
room.

"What did you do to the guard?" Dr. Slonamn asked, wondering if the
prisoner would slay him.

"He'll be all right. I only hit him. I'm sorry. It was necessary." The
giant spoke in haste. His eyes were clouded, dreamy, as if he had
taken an overdose of barbituates.

"What are you going to do?"

"You saw? In the disc?"

"Yes," said Dr. Slonamn.

"I'm going. It's my home."

The giant took a step forward, then began to stagger.

"Your home?" Dr. Slonamn gasped. "Your _home_?"

The giant, who had given his name to the prison authorities as Bram
Forest, did not answer. Dr. Slonamn reached out, as if to grab him.
Bram Forest stood there, a smile and the acceptance of pain fighting
for mastery of his face.

Dr. Slonamn staggered back as if struck. _His hand had passed through
Bram Forest's body._

Staggering, trembling, Dr. Slonamn leaned for support on the desk. He
could see through Bram Forest now. See through him entirely.

A cold fierce wind, like no wind ever felt on Earth, touched him. He
shuddered.

When he looked again, Bram Forest was gone....

       *       *       *       *       *

"Retoc the Abarian!" the seneschal's voice proclaimed.

An uneasy stir passed through the crowd of mourning courtiers in the
palace chamber. Retoc, ruler of Abaria, did not often visit Nadia. A
state of armed tension existed between Abaria and Nadia of the ice
fields. Nadia alone of the many disunited nations of Tarth had
strength in some ways comparable to that of black forested Abaria, but
even then, if a war came between the two nations, the issue would
never seriously be in doubt.

As a matter of diplomacy, Retoc had been invited to the funeral of
Prince Jlomec, although neither Bontarc, ruler of Nadia, nor his
sister, Volna the Beautiful, had ever dreamed he would come.

While the crowd milled about in their white mourning garments, Retoc
told the seneschal: "I wish an audience with the Princess Volna."

The crowd was suddenly quiet. Volna the Beautiful, haughty, imperious,
princess of the royal blood, would certainly refuse to see the Abarian
ruler. Nevertheless, the seneschal bowed low, said, "Your request will
be carried to the staff of the royal household, lord," and disappeared
behind a hanging.

       *       *       *       *       *

Some time later, in another part of the palace, Bontarc was saying:
"Volna, Volna, listen to me. You can't see that man now."

"I'm going to see him," Volna the Beautiful told her brother. "So it
may not be said that a princess of the royal blood hid in fear behind
a wall of tragedy."

"But sister! With dear Prince Jlomec still not on the burning barge
which will carry him down the River of Ice on the final journey from
which--"

"Please, brother," Volna said a little coldly. "I'm going to grant
Retoc his audience. Don't you understand? He thinks me weakened by
Jlomec's death. Oh, I loved the Prince, yes. He was always so--so
quiet and aloof from affairs of state. But I can be strong if strong I
have to be."

"Then you won't change your mind?" Bontarc asked. He was a fighting
man by nature. The devious paths of diplomacy he set foot on only with
reluctance.

For answer Volna said: "Let me prepare to greet the royal visitor."
And she watched Bontarc leave her quarters.

At once she clapped her hands. Six serving maids skipped through the
hangings into her huge bower and while they clustered jabbering about
her like so many excited birds, she undid the fastening at her left
shoulder and allowed her gown of mourning white to fall in a crumpled
heap at her feet. She stood naked and perfectly still while the
serving maids administered to her, each girl a master in one of the
cosmetic arts. And Volna, she of the haughty face and glorious body,
she who already had been beautiful to look upon, was soon transformed
by the cosmetic arts into the loveliest woman the planet Tarth had
seen since the Queen Evalla.

Her thoughts went to the dead queen of Ofrid as the maids dressed her
again in the mourning garment. Evalla, a woman with beauty to match
Volna's, had ruled the most powerful nation Tarth had ever known.
Then, Volna smiled, why not another such woman, with hands strong
enough, and vision clear enough, to grasp the chalice of power and
drink deeply of its heady brew?

       *       *       *       *       *

"Retoc," she was saying a few moments later.

She clapped her hands. The maids in waiting withdrew, giggling.

"Volna, Volna," said the big Abarian ruler. "You are glorious. Every
jek of the journey from the Plains of Ofrid across the ice fields of
Nadia, I burned for you." He came very close to her. His face swam
before her vision, a hard, strong, handsome face with the cruel eyes
of a sadist. Fitting consort for a woman who would rule the world? His
lips parted....

Volna, smiling, placed her cool hand over his mouth.

"Then let me put out the fire," she said coolly, "for we have much to
discuss."

"But Princess, I--"

"Hush. And what, exactly, were you doing on the Plains of Ofrid?"

Retoc's big face flushed red. Then, when he saw Volna was still
smiling, he said: "When we met last, you mentioned that two men stood
between you and the throne of Nadia."

"Yes?" said Volna, mocking him, turning swiftly with the light behind
her sending its bright beams through the white mourning garment and
outlining the seductive curves of her body.

"Jlomec is dead," Retoc said simply.

Still smiling, Volna slapped the big man's face ringingly. Retoc
stepped back, startled.

"Fool!" Volna hissed. "I can call the guards. I can have you slain."

"But I--"

"I did not say I was not pleased. But don't lie to me. That isn't why
you slew my brother. Well, man, is it?"

Retoc bowed his head. Only in his eyes there was fury. "We'll make a
strange pair, Volna, you and I," he said passionately.

"Is it?"

Retoc shook his head slowly.

"You see? I knew it. I knew it was you when they told us Jlomec had
been slain, and yet because I know you and know too how you are quick
to passion, I told myself you had not done it consciously because I
had suggested it to you. Fool. Can I trust such as you?"

"Only Bontarc stands between you and empire. And Bontarc is a simple
man."

"As you are a passionate man."

"Yet you need me, Volna. You need the strength of my arm--and my army.
What a pair we'll make!"

Volna stepped into the embrace of his big arms and allowed herself to
be kissed. Retoc burned for her. He had said so. All men burned for
her, she knew that. And, before she was finished, every man of Tarth
would kneel at her feet and call her Queen.

Retoc drew back finally, breathing hard. Volna had for him only a
cool, mocking smile.

       *       *       *       *       *

At last he said, "There are some who might say Retoc of Abaria killed
the royal prince."

"Dolt! Were you seen?"

Retoc shrugged as if it were not important. "A band of wayfarers on
the Ofridian Plain. They were so frightened, they fled at once. After
I had wounded the white giant."

Volna's eyes flashed suddenly. "There was someone else? You did not
kill him?"

"I tried to. He escaped, Princess."

"Then you are more a fool than I thought."

"But I--"

"Begone! We can't be seen together too much. Take quarters in Nadia
City, and let me know where you are. You understand?"

"Yes, Princess."

She allowed him to kiss her hand, then he withdrew. A few moments
later, at her summons, the seneschal appeared. Subtly her face had
changed. No longer was she the desiring and desirous princess.
Instead, she was a grieving sister, whose brother's body still lay in
state in the royal palace.

The seneschal, whose name was Prokliam, bowed obsequiously. He knew
that by custom the body of a royal Nadian floated down the River of
Ice in the company of two living servants--one man and one woman--who
would perish with him in the Place of the Dead. He knew also that he
had been Jlomec's favorite and now lived in constant fear that the
Princess Volna would decree that he, Prokliam, must accompany his dead
master on the Journey of No Return, to serve him in death as he had
served him in life.

"Yes, lady?" the frightened Prokliam asked.

"Bontarc, our king, grieves mightily for the dead prince," Volna said.

"All Nadia grieves for Jlomec, lady," Prokliam said, and added
hastily: "Although I must admit I do not grieve more than the next
man. No, no, it is a mistake to think I was Jlomec's favorite."

"Be that as it may Bontarc grieves so that for a while at least some
of the affairs of state will be in my hands."

"I hear and understand lady."

"Good. If anyone comes--anyone at all, whether wayfarers from Ofrid or
others--with news of how Jlomec died, they are to be brought at once
to me. Is that understood?"

"Yes, my princess." Prokliam the seneschal bowed low once more.

"Serve me well in this, Prokliam, and you will be rewarded in
measure."

Prokliam smiled. "I will be the personification of discretion," he
said boldly, baring his toothless old gums.

"Then perhaps I will still the rumors that you were the dead Jlomec's
favorite."

Prokliam dropped at the royal feet and touched his lips to the royal
toes. Then he bowed out of the room.

Volna stared for many moments at her beautiful face in the mirror.
Queen, she thought. She said it aloud:

"Queen Volna."



CHAPTER XIII

_The Journey of No Return_


Earlier that day, on the ice fields half a dozen jeks from Nadia City,
B'ronth the Utalian had sprinted boldly across the snow toward the
girl and her elderly male companion. This had taken considerable
effort, because B'ronth the Utalian had not been endowed with an
abundance of courage. But B'ronth was a poor man, as Utalia was a poor
country; a bag of gold would be a veritable fortune to him. Like most
cowards, B'ronth had one passion which could over-ride his timidity:
that passion in B'ronth's case was wealth.

The old man was fumbling clumsily for his whip-sword when B'ronth
hurtled at them. The girl screamed:

"Look out, Father Hammeth! Look out!"

B'ronth smiled. They would not see the smile, of course. B'ronth, a
chameleon man, was invisible. They would see his footprints in the
snow, true. They would know him for a Utalian and understand his
invisibility. But still the advantage of invisibility would be his. It
had always been so when a Utalian fought. It would always be so.

B'ronth leaped upon the old man even as he prepared to strike out with
the whip-sword. B'ronth was both naked and unarmed. The sword lashed
whining at air a foot from his face. B'ronth wrenched its haft from
the old man's hand. Hammeth stumbled back.

B'ronth swung the whip-sword. He was no duelist. A duelist would lunge
and thrust with the whip-sword, allowing its mobile point some degree
of freedom by controlling it deftly. A non-duelist like B'ronth would
hack and slash, the deadly sword-point whipping about, curling,
slashing, striking.

Hammeth held up his hands to defend himself. The whip-sword whined in
the cold air. The girl screamed. Hammeth's right hand flew from his
arm and blood jetted from the stump. Hammeth sank to the ground and
lay there in a spreading pool of crimson. His eyes remained open. He
was staring with hatred at B'ronth. In a matter of minutes, B'ronth
knew, he would bleed to death. B'ronth turned on the girl.

She stood before him swaying. She had almost swooned, but as B'ronth
approached her, she flung herself at him, crying Hammeth's name, and
they both fell down in the snow. B'ronth let the whip-sword fall from
his fingers. Half a bag of gold for a dead girl, but the whole bag if
she lived. She fought like a wild cat and for a few moments B'ronth
regretted dropping the weapon and actually feared for his life. But
soon, his courage returning and his whole being contemplating the bag
of gold, he subdued the girl.

She lay back exhausted in the snow. "Please," she said. "Please bind
his arm. He'll bleed to death. Please."

B'ronth said nothing. Ylia staggered to her feet, then collapsed and
crawled on her knees to Hammeth. The blood jetted from the stump of
his arm. He was watching her. A little smile touched the corners of
his mouth but pain made his eyes wild.

B'ronth licked his lips. He had earned his bag of gold and, earning
it, thought of more wealth. He thought: _why should I accept one bag
of gold from a common Abarian soldier when there are millions of bags
of gold in Nadia City_? He could deliver the girl, who obviously knew
something the Abarians did not wish the Nadians to know, to Nadia
City. He could sell her to the Nadians. Or, if the Abarians outbid
them, then the Abarians....

Bruised, her cloak in tatters, Ylia reached Hammeth. His eyes blinked.
He smiled at her again, smiling this time with his whole face. Then he
turned his head away and his eyes remained open and staring.

"You ... killed ... him," Ylia said, sobbing.

B'ronth dragged her to her feet. "Lulukee!" he called. "Lulukee!"
Where was the boy?

Lulukee did not answer. Cursing, B'ronth stripped the corpse and
dressed in its warm clothing. The blood on the right sleeve was
already stiff with cold. Where could Lulukee have gone off to?
wondered B'ronth. Well, no matter. They were only a few jeks from
Nadia City, where wealth awaited him....

"Come," he said. He dragged the girl along. She looked back at the
dead old man until a snow drift hid him from sight.

       *       *       *       *       *

After the Utalian had dragged the beautiful girl beyond the ridges of
snow, Lulukee the Nadian came down into the valley. He was a small boy
of some sixty winters who, like many of the Nadians who did not come
from their country's single large city, had lived a hard life as an
ice-field nomad. He had seen an opportunity to profit in the service
of B'ronth the Utalian, but had not expected this service to include
murder. Thus when the Utalian had called him, expecting the boy to
drag his supply sled down into the snow-valley, Lulukee had remained
hidden. Now, though, he made his way to the body of the dead man and,
scavengerlike, went over it with the hope of turning a profit by
B'ronth's deed.

In that he was disappointed. B'ronth had taken the dead man's snow
cloak and his whip-sword: there was nothing left for Lulukee's
gleaning. He was about to turn and trudge back the way he had come,
when he realized that if he did so, if he exposed himself on the
higher wind-ridges, B'ronth might see him. Therefore he remained a
long time with the frozen body of Father Hammeth, actually falling
into a light slumber while he waited.

He awoke with a start. He blinked, then cowered away from the
apparition which confronted him. It was a man, but such a man as
Lulukee the Nadian had never seen before, a superbly muscled man a
head taller than the tall Abarians themselves.

"Where's the girl?" the man demanded.

"I--I don't know, lord."

"How did this happen?" The man looked down with compassion at Father
Hammeth's corpse.

"I only just arrived, l-lord."

"You lie," the big man said. "You were sleeping here. You'll tell me,
or--"

Lulukee blanched. He owed no loyalty to B'ronth the Utalian. If indeed
he remained loyal he might be implicated in the murder of the old man.
He said: "It was B'ronth the Utalian."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Where is he?"

"G-going to Nadia City, I think."

"Alone?"

"No, lord. With his prisoner. A--a lovely woman."

"Ylia!" the giant cried. "You! How are you called?"

"I am Lulukee of Nadia, lord."

"Lead me to the city. Lead me after them."

"But lord--"

"Lead me." The giant did not shout. He did not menace of glower or
threaten. Yet there was something in his bearing which made it
impossible for the frightened Lulukee to do anything but obey. "Yes,
lord," he said.

"Tell me--" as they started out, the boy's sled reluctantly left
behind--"is this B'ronth the Utalian in Retoc's pay?"

"No, I don't think so. He works alone, lord. Reaping profit wherever
he can."

"And he took the girl unwillingly?"

"Yes, lord."

"He won't profit in this venture," Bram vowed.

The wind howled behind them. Six jeks ahead of them was Nadia City.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Can't you see I'm busy? Can't you see I have no time for the likes of
you?" Prokliam the seneschal whined in self-pity.

"Then make time," B'ronth said boldly, his cowardice obscured by
dreams of avarice. "What I have brought through the Ice Gates is
important to your ruler."

"Bontarc of Nadia," said the seneschal haughtily, "does not waste his
time on every Utalian vagabond who reaches his court."

"True. But I assume Bontarc of Nadia wishes to know exactly how his
brother, the Prince Jlomec, died?"

Prokliam fought to keep his puckered old face impassive. But his mind
was racing and his heart throbbed painfully. Could the Utalian know
anything about that? If so, and if he, Prokliam, brought this B'ronth
before the Princess Volna as she had ordered....

"Wait here," Prokliam snapped arrogantly. "And keep your cloak on. We
don't want invisible Utalians floating about the palace."

B'ronth offered a mock bow. Prokliam turned to go, then whirled about
again. "If you're lying, wasting my time--"

B'ronth smiled unctuously. "In the ante-room, being amused by your
palace guards, is one who has been on the Plains of Ofrid quite
recently."

"So?"

"When the Prince Jlomec was there. She saw him slain."

"Wait here," said Prokliam a little breathlessly. He pushed the
hanging aside and stalked down a corridor, and around a bend, and up a
flight of stone stairs. He was busy, all right. That had been no lie.
Preparations must be made for the funeral games of the Prince Jlomec,
to which all the nobility of Tarth had been invited. But this,
obviously, was more important. On this Prokliam's life might
depend....

"Are they checking way-passes, lord?" Lulukee asked the big, silent
man at his side. Ahead of them, filing slowly through the Ice Gates,
were hundreds of visitors entering Nadia City for the funeral games. A
flat-bottomed air-car hovered overhead, peltasts leaning over its
sides, ready. Guards flanked the Ice Gates with drawn whip-swords, as
if admitting the superiority of Abarian weapons of war.

"We'll get through," Bram Forest vowed. "Tell me, Lulukee, if you
brought a prisoner to the city who might be worth much to the Abarians
but also to the Nadians, and if you were intent on getting the biggest
profit, where would you take her?"

"If I had great courage, lord?"

"If you dreamed of reward."

"I would take her to the royal palace, lord, to Bontarc the King or to
his sister, Princess Volna the Beautiful, who, some say, is the real
power behind the Nadian throne although Bontarc is a great soldier."

       *       *       *       *       *

They had reached the gate. "Way passes," a bored guard said.

Lulukee mumbled something uncertainly. His heart beat painfully
against his ribs. His brain refused to function. There was intrigue
here, he could sense that. More intrigue than he cared to have a hand
in. As a Nadian citizen, he owned a way pass, of course. But the
giant? Obviously the giant did not. Lulukee was sorry he had ever
agreed to go along with B'ronth the Utalian. Now he only wanted to get
out of the entire situation as quickly--and safely--as possible.

He pointed an accusing finger at Bram Forest. "_He_ has no way pass!"
Lulukee cried.

The guards stiffened, their whip-swords ready. They looked at Bram
Forest. Overhead, the air-car hovered, its peltasts stationed there in
the event of trouble, their slings poised.

Ylia was in there somewhere, a prisoner. Bram Forest spurned violence
for its own sake, but Ylia might need him. Ylia, who had nursed him
back to health when Retoc had left him for dead on the parched Plains
of Ofrid. Ylia, the lovely.

"I'm going through," Bram Forest said softly. "Don't try to stop me."

For answer, the nearest guard let his left hand drop.

It had been a signal. Overhead, the peltasts drew back their slings.
"Will you go in peace?" the guard asked, his eyes narrow slits now,
his right arm tensed to bring the whip-sword around.

Bram Forest waited. Every muscle in his superbly-conditioned body
cried for action, but he would not initiate it.

The guard pointed back along the path across the ice fields, where
hundreds of visitors to the city were waiting impatiently. "Then go,"
he said harshly, "before your flesh feeds the stilt-birds on the banks
of the River of Ice."

The guard raised his sword menacingly. Standing rigidly still and
giving no warning, Bram Forest lashed out with his left fist, hitting
the guard in the mouth. Lips split, teeth flew, blood covered the
guard's face. Someone screamed. The guard fell, but his companion
lashed out with his own whip-sword. Bram Forest lunged to one side and
grabbed the sword-arm, twisting it. The guard howled, dropping his
weapon. Lulukee made a dive for it. But the guard, his legs still
free, kicked Lulukee in the face. As he fell, his senses blurring,
Lulukee wondered why he had made that desperate, foolish attempt to
help the big, silent man. He could not answer the question in mere
words. But there was something about him, something about Bram Forest,
which drew loyalty from you even as the sun drew dew from the
ground....

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest lifted the second guard by sword-girdle and scruff of neck
and held him aloft. The guard's arms and legs flailed frantically.
"No!" he screamed up at the peltasts. "No...."

But they had already unleashed their first volley of stones, pelting
the helpless guard until he lost consciousness. Bram Forest flung him
aside, leaped over the first fallen guard's supine body, and plunged
recklessly into the crowds milling just inside the Ice Gates.

"He went that way!" a voice screamed.

"That way!"

"Over there!"

"There he is!"

It was an ancient city, with narrow, tortuous alleyways and
overhanging buildings and little-used passageways. The wide
streets--the few there were--mobbed with people.

For all his size, the giant had disappeared.

Lulukee picked himself up, dusted himself off, and showed his way pass
to the guard. The guard said nothing. He had lost three teeth and his
mouth was swollen, painful. Lulukee sensed that somehow the little he
had done to help Bram Forest was all he would ever do for him. Yet he
felt with a strange pride he did not fathom that although his role in
the saga of the mysterious giant had come to an end, it was the most
important event in his life and would remain so if he lived to be
six-hundred. He felt somehow--and could not explain why he felt
this--as if in his small way he had done something to make the world
Tarth a better place in which to live.

Whistling, he pushed his way through the crowds and was lost to sight
just as the giant who went before him.

       *       *       *       *       *

"B'ronth of Utalia!" Prokliam the seneschal proclaimed. Volna the
Beautiful nodded. The doddering old seneschal had already told her
about the Utalian. She was prepared to receive him now. If he knew
what he claimed to know, if he knew the true details of the death of
Prince Jlomec, then he must be silenced. Naturally, he wanted gold.
They always wanted gold. But gold was not the way to silence them.
Gold never worked. It only made them greedy for more.

With Volna were, instead of her usual ladies in waiting, two discreet
palace guards. Grinning, she looked at their whip-swords. That was the
way to silence one such as B'ronth the Utalian.

"He may enter," Volna told the seneschal. Prokliam bowed out, saying:

"And Princess, you will not forget--"

"No, Prokliam, I won't forget. You hardly knew the Prince Jlomec at
all, did you? You certainly couldn't have been his favorite."

"Princess," breathed the seneschal tremulously as he withdrew.

A moment later, B'ronth the Utalian entered the royal chamber. He wore
a snow-cloak. He was all but invisible except for the snow-cloak. He
was, eerily, a disembodied cloak floating through air. Although,
noticed Volna, if you looked closely you could see the faintest
suggestion of a man's head above the cloak, as if you saw the rich
wall tapestries of the room through a transparent, head-shaped glass.
Likewise, the suggestion of arms and legs....

"You are B'ronth?" An unnecessary question, but Volna had not yet made
up her mind what must be done.

"Yes, majesty," the cloak said in a different but somehow unctuous
voice.

"You are alone?"

"No, majesty," said the cloak.

"Then--?"

"A girl. A wayfarer of the Plains of Ofrid. I accompany her."

"And the story you have to tell?"

"I realize, majesty, how the royal Princess must grieve at the loss of
her royal brother, the Prince. I realize...."

"To the point, man. Get to the point. Are you trying to say you know
how Prince Jlomec was slain? You know who killed him?"

"Yes," said the cloak boldly, eagerly.

Princess Volna smiled. Perhaps something in that smile warned B'ronth
the Utalian. But of course, the warning came too late. In a quick
jerky motion, the cloak retreated toward the doorway. "Princess...."
B'ronth said.

Princess Volna told her guards: "Kill him."

B'ronth the Utalian had time for one brief scream which, if a sound
could, seemed to embody all his frustrated dreams of wealth. Then one
of the guards moved swiftly, his arm streaking out. The whip-sword in
his hand lashed, blurring, toward the cloak. Bright red blood welled,
jetted.

B'ronth the Utalian's head, no longer invisible, rolled on the floor
at Volna's lovely feet. "Clean that up," she told one of the guards.
To the other she said: "Now fetch the girl."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Mind, lord, I don't question you," Hultax the Abarian said. "But it's
just--"

"Did you send the message?" Retoc cut him off.

"As you ordered, sire. Yes."

"Good."

"Sire, I hate inactivity. I loathe it. I am a soldier."

"As I am," said Retoc slowly, his hard cruel eyes staring at something
Hultax could not--and would never be able to--see.

"So we just sit here in this rented house in Nadia City, cooling our
heels. It doesn't make sense, sire."

"Sense?" mused Retoc. "What is sense? Is it victory and power for the
strongest? Well, is it?"

"Yes, lord," Hultax responded. "But--"

"And you sent the message? Our legions will come?"

"Yes, lord. Two days hence they'll be encamped on the ice fields three
jeks march from the city gates. But I don't see--"

"You obey, Hultax. I see. I do the seeing."

"But I thought you ... the Princess Volna ... together...."

"The Princess can serve me, now. If she can deliver Nadia without a
fight, then Tarth is mine, Hultax, don't you see? In two days all the
royal blood of all the royal families of Tarth will be assembled here
in Nadia for the funeral games. If Bontarc's army doesn't interfere,
then I will be master of Tarth."

"But if Bontarc finds out--"

"That, Hultax," said Retoc with a smile, "is why you sent the
message."

"My sire," said the proud soldier Hultax humbly.

Soon, thought Retoc, all Tarth would call him that. _My sire...._

       *       *       *       *       *

Ahead of Bram Forest loomed the ramparts of the palace. He must hurry.
He knew he had to hurry. He pushed impatiently through the crowd.
Several times men looked up angrily, and would have said something.
But when they saw his face, they turned away.

What they saw in Bram Forest's face made them afraid.

"Majesty?" Prokliam the seneschal said.

"Well?" Volna demanded. "Didn't the guards send you for the girl?"

"Majesty, I was thinking...."

"Well, Prokliam, what is it? Didn't you go for the girl?"

"Not yet, majesty, begging your pardon...."

"If you have something to say, then say it. And get the girl."

"Majesty, a seneschal knows the palace. It is his job...."

"I warn you, Prokliam, I have little patience today." Her anxiety was
evident.

"No one wishes to be chosen," Prokliam blurted quickly, boldly, "even
as I did not wish to be chosen to accompany the body of Prince Jlomec
on the Journey of No Return. Now that you have spared me, in your
royal benevolence, I thought I might in turn advise you...."

"Yes, what is it, man?"

"You should not have killed the Utalian, majesty. If it is ordained
that a living man and a living woman accompany the Prince's body to
the Place of the Dead, to die there with him, their spirits serving
him in death, why choose from among the palace staff? We all have
family, we all have friends, we all stand something to lose. But
majesty, if you were to break with tradition, if you were to send
instead two strangers whose loss meant nothing to the palace, the
palace staff would love and revere you even more than they already
do."

       *       *       *       *       *

Volna's beautiful face smiled at him. He did not know what she was
thinking. He never knew. No one did. She might reward him or have him
slain on the spot. "Why do you tell me this, Prokliam?" she asked.

"For saving me when it was thought I would accompany--"

"No. There must be another reason."

"If you do this deed and if the palace and the people love you for it,
and if the scepter of power should slip from Bontarc's hand to yours,
and if, when it came time to select your prime minister...."

"Ha! Ha! Ha! We have an ambitious palace butler."

"But surely you--"

"Yes, Prokliam. I understand. I won't deny it. Perhaps I had the
Utalian slain impetuously. But there's still the girl."

"I'll fetch her at once, majesty."

"And if," mused Volna, no longer aware of the seneschal's presence,
"we could find another stranger, a man, to accompany the body of
Prince Jlomec on the Journey of No Return, not only the palace, but
the people as well would love me. A stranger...."

"Take me to your King," Bram Forest told the palace guard.

The guard smirked. "Do you think any stranger in the realm is granted
an audience with King Bontarc, fool?"

"It is a matter of life and death."

"But whose life and death?" demanded the guard, roaring with laughter.
"Yours, idiot?"

"It is about Ylia the Wayfarer."

"I know of no Ylia the Wayfarer. Begone, dolt!"

"It is about Prince Jlomec."

The guard's eyes narrowed. The word had been passed by no less a
person than Prokliam the seneschal that anyone with information
concerning the death of the royal Prince should be brought at once not
to Bontarc but to Princess Volna. Could the guard, could he, Porfis,
do less?

"Very well," he said. "Come with me."

Unarmed, but aware of his giant's strength and the mission which had
seen him spend the first hundred years of his life in a crypt on
Earth, Bram Forest went with the guard.

The way was long, through chambers in which priceless tapestries
hung, through narrow, musty corridors into which the light of day
barely penetrated, through rooms in which ladies in waiting and
courtiers talked and joked, up bare stone stairs and through heavy
wooden doors which Porfis the guard opened with a key which hung at
his belt. The doors opened slowly.

Bram Forest entered a large room. It was, he could see at a glance, a
woman's bower. Someone was standing at the far end of the room, in
shadow. He squinted. He took two slow steps into the room. He began to
run.

"Ylia! Ylia!" he cried.

Too late he saw the fetters binding her arms. Too late he saw her bite
savagely at something and twist her neck and spit the gag from her
mouth. Too late he heard her cry:

"Bram! Bram Forest! Behind you!"

He turned barely in time to see Porfis the guard, his whip-sword
raised overhead hilt-first. He lifted his arm, but it was swept aside
in the downward rush of the sword. Something exploded behind his eyes
and all eternity seemed to open beneath his feet. He plunged into
blackness with Ylia's name on his lips.

       *       *       *       *       *

Unconscious, he was taken with Ylia through subterranean passages to
the Royal Dock on the River of Ice. The barge with Jlomec's embalmed
body waited. It was very cold on the river. The Place of the Dead
beckoned from the unseen end of the Journey of No Return.



CHAPTER XIV

_Land Beyond the Stars_


At first Retoc the Abarian was too stunned by what he witnessed to
think coherently. With the other Tarthians of royal blood he had
received an unexpected summons to appear at the Royal Dock on the
River of Ice and, before he could even try to fathom what it was
about, an escort of Nadian guards had come to fetch him.

It was cold and murky on the banks of the River of Ice. The two men,
Retoc and Hultax had arrived barely in time to see them unfastening
the hawsers of the Royal Barge. Curious, he pushed closer through the
crowd of nobles. Suddenly, before the barge was quite unmoored, as it
swayed and rocked on the currents of the river, Nadian soldiers
appeared with a platform on poles slung across their shoulders, the
usual means of intra-city transportation for Nadian royalty. But this
was no royalty Retoc saw on the platform, although they were dressed
as royalty.

The woman, conscious and bound hand and foot, was the Virgin of the
Wayfarers who had witnessed Prince Jlomec's death. The man,
unconscious, his head propped high on pillows, was the white giant who
once on the Plains of Ofrid had almost strangled Retoc.

A hatred such as he had never known flashed through Retoc's brain. He
was so close he could see the gentle up-and-down motion of the giant's
chest as he breathed. Then, beyond the platform, he saw Volna. Volna
smiled at him. The platform bobbed by, was placed on the barge at the
foot of Jlomec's bier. The remaining hawsers were cut loose.

There was, Retoc thought triumphantly, no return from the Place of the
Dead.

But still, the white giant had recovered from what looked like certain
death once, had vanished abruptly and fantastically when he would have
died again. What was good enough for Volna the Beautiful was not
necessarily good enough for Retoc of Abaria. He watched only long
enough to see the royal barge pushed out into the icy currents of the
river, then he turned and made his way to the second tier of
observers, where Hultax stood among the lesser nobility and the
military officers of the planet Tarth. He found Hultax and whispered
for a time in his ear.

       *       *       *       *       *

Hultax's face blanched. "But lord," he protested, "there is no return ...
it is obvious the man will die ... you couldn't expect me to...." Hultax,
frightened, confused, could neither think clearly nor express himself
properly. His mouth hung open.

[Illustration: The boar charged while death and the Golden Ape stood
grinning.]

"Earlier, Hultax," Retoc said with a hard smile, "you craved action. I
give you action. Take a boat. There are some moored down-river for the
use of Nadian priests on their religious pilgrimages to the banks
where the stilt-birds dwell. Overtake the royal barge. Board it. Slay
the man and the woman."

"But I--the Place of the Dead...."

"Fool!" hissed Retoc. "I didn't ask you to visit the Place of the
Dead. That's up to you. If you slay them first, on the River of Ice,
and can bring back proof ... but the longer we talk, the further they
are. You'll go?"

It was phrased as a question; actually, it was a command. Grim-faced,
the whip-sword trailing at his side, Hultax left the crowd of soldiers
and made his way downstream. A few moments later he had poled a wooden
skiff out into the icy current and went down-river in pursuit of the
royal barge.

       *       *       *       *       *

The guards had unbound Ylia's fetters on the barge, knowing she could
never swim for safety in the waters of the River of Ice. She sat now
at the foot of Jlomec's bier, with Bram Forest's handsome head
cushioned on her lap. It was very cold there on the river. Wind blew,
rustling the reeds which grew along the bank. They had long since
emerged from the river's underground cavern. The swift current carried
them now through a country of ice, a tundra. The reeds, twice as tall
as a man, seemed to thrive on the riverbanks. They swallowed
everything.

Bram Forest opened his eyes, and looked at her, and smiled. He tried
to sit up, wincing as pain knifed through his head. "We seem to make a
habit of this," he said, smiling again.

"Shh, you mustn't talk."

She leaned close. He could smell the animal perfume of her body, like
musk and jasmine. Impulsively, she kissed him softly on the lips. His
arm went around her neck. He pulled her head down and drank deeply of
her.

"Why ..." she began, all breathless.

"Because I love you. I think I loved you the first moment I saw you.
But I didn't know it then." He laughed softly, gently, and she did not
know why this should be so.

"Why do you laugh?"

"I was an infant, the son of the Queen. Of Queen Evalla. Portox the
scientist fled with me, the last of the royal Ofridian blood, to the
other side of the solar system, to a world the twin of this, a world
we never see because the sun always stands between us, a world called
Earth. There I would wait until maturity. There I would be given the
strength and the wisdom I needed. And then I would return to Tarth and
right the ancient wrong. Well, I have returned. I love you. It is
enough, Ylia. I want to think of the future, not the past."

Ylia let him kiss her again. "Isn't it the same, the future and the
past? Aren't they one? I too am of Ofridian blood, Bram Forest, of the
lesser nobility. There are hundreds of us, living nomadic lives on the
Ofridian Plains, where once our great nation stood."

"I didn't know that. It wasn't in Portox's training. Now Portox is
dead. I buried him on this world called Earth. He could not even come
back to his native Tarth."

"Darling, don't you see? That's exactly why the ancient wrong must be
righted, why Retoc must pay for his infamous deeds. So Portox and the
millions of other Ofridians, slain, all slain, can sleep eternally in
peace. You are their champion."

"But revenge? What is revenge if--"

"You are the champion of the future too! Don't you see, oh, don't you?
Of all the unborn tomorrows when the Ofridian nation may live again.
Of all the unborn tomorrows when the nations of Tarth can live
together in peace and harmony. Don't you understand that?"

"It's funny. I try to see my mother's face. Queen Evalla. But all I
see is you. She's the past, Ylia. You're the future." He held her
lightly.

"There is no future for anyone as long as Retoc the Abarian rules, and
dreams of Tarth, all Tarth, as his domain."

Bram Forest stood up. The cold winds blew. He looked at the blue-cold
body of Jlomec, lying in state, at the ice-choked river, at the banks
of rustling reeds. He did not have to ask where they were. He knew.
"Perhaps," he said at last. "I only mean that if I do this thing it
will be more to see that future generations live in peace than to
bring vengeance on a power-mad Abarian."

"Oh, Bram! That's what I wanted you to say. I wanted to hear you say
that. For tomorrow! For all our tomorrows."

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest walked to the rail of the barge, and gripped it, and
looked out over the ice-flows. He recited:

    "An ape, a boar, a stallion,
     A land beyond the stars.
     A Virgin's feast, a raging beast,
     A prison without bars."

"Why, what an unusual poem!" Ylia cried. Then: "Hold me close, it's so
cold. And I'm afraid, Bram Forest...."

"Of the Place of the Dead?"

"Yes, yes. The Place of the Dead."

"It and the poem are entwined," Bram Forest said musingly. "I know
they are. Together, they're my destiny."

"And the destiny of all Tarth?"

"Perhaps. Portox liked to think so, I guess."

"I like to think so, Bram Forest." She smiled up at him tremulously.
"And my destiny as well."

"Ylia," he asked abruptly, "what do you know about the Golden Ape? You
mentioned it to me once, when you thought I ... well, when you thought
I endangered your virginity."

"Why, nothing beyond what the legends say."

"And what do the legends say?"

"It is written in the most ancient of our religious beliefs that the
messenger to the Place of the Dead is a Golden Ape. Naturally, in
these same beliefs, a defiled virgin is supposed to kill herself.
Thus, in a way of speaking, she goes to the Golden Ape. You see?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest smiled down at her. "What would you think if I told you
the Golden Ape was real? If I told you that there actually was a Place
of the Dead?"

"For the spirits of the departed?" Ylia asked in a very small voice.

"No. Man can't presume to know about that. It's in the realm of the
gods. I mean a place which somehow borders on Tarth and yet ... yet is
beyond the stars. A place which, when wayfarers returned from it
miraculously long and long ago, gave rise to the legends."

"Borders on Tarth ... yet beyond the stars? How can this be?"

"Portox found it and explained it with his science," Bram Forest
insisted. "Earth and Tarth, twin worlds, yet so different, forever
unseen one by the other, on opposite sides of the sun. They're unique in
the solar system, Ylia. Portox thought--if the memory he planted in my
mind is correct--that they're unique in the entire universe. Somehow, a
million million years ago, a world split, becoming two worlds. But
ordinary space ... I don't know, the memory is confused ... could not
hold them. There is a warp of space, a place where space bends. Learn to
master the warp and you go instantly from Tarth to Earth, or back again.
That was the way Portox brought me, as an infant, to Earth." He held
aloft his arm, showing her the steel-silver disc. "With this I can
travel back and forth at will. Without it, either Earth or Tarth would
be my prison...." His voice trailed off.

Then he blurted: "'A prison without bars!'"

"What...."

"The prophetic poem. Part of the poem. Anyway, Ylia, Earth and Tarth
exist at either end of this space warp, connected thus through normal
space where there should be no connection. And someplace along the
warp--where ordinary space-time distances don't matter...."

"I'm sorry, Bram Forest. I don't understand you."

       *       *       *       *       *

"I'm not sure I understand myself. Tarth is a primitive world. It is
beyond our science. It is even beyond the science of Earth, I believe,
and Earth is a millennium ahead of Tarth in its development. But
Portox knew. Anyhow, someplace along the warp--in ordinary distances
along the space-time continuum perhaps a billion light years distant
from either Earth or Tarth, is a third world. On the warp it is very
close. The River of Ice leads to it. We call it the Place of the
Dead."

"But the Golden Ape--?"

"--inhabits the so-called Place of the Dead. Their world was dying,
but Portox saved them. I think ... the science is beyond me ... the
entropy of their galaxy was running down ... their world perishing,
freezing ... when somehow with his great science Portox claimed for
their use the unavailable energy in their ... their thermodynamic
system, and saved them."

"Why do you frown so?"

"Words. Words only. I don't understand. I can only act."

"You can act," Ylia said, hugging herself tight against him. "For
Tarth and the future."

"For Tarth and the future," Bram Forest said, but he hardly heard the
words.

Ahead of them in the cold clear air a wall seemed to rise. It came up
so suddenly, and, in fact, the air had cleared so suddenly from the
accustomed murkiness, that Ylia was afraid. "It is in the legend," she
whispered. "The Black Wall, Bram Forest. And beyond it--the Place of
the Dead."

"More accurately, an edge-on view of the space-warp, where it meets
the normal world." But although he spoke the words of Portox, Bram
Forest did not sound too confident.

"We're coming closer to it, Bram. Hold me!"

He held her. There was nothing else he could do. The current swept the
barge on inexorably. The Black Wall reared ahead of them, frowned down
at them, seemed to block off all the rest of the universe and all
reality whether of Earth or of Tarth....

The barge penetrated the wall. Black and solid-seeming, solid as
stone, it yet offered no resistance. The barge disappeared within it.

Behind the barge, rope-trailing so close that its prow almost scraped
the royal wood, was a skiff in which, shaking and afraid yet somehow
triumphant because he had heard Bram Forest's strange words, was
Hultax the Abarian.



CHAPTER XV

_The Golden Ape_


Hultax the Abarian shook himself. He had lost consciousness as every
nerve-ending in his body had screamed with pain. Did this have
something to do with the warp--warping?--Bram Forest had mentioned.
Hultax the Abarian did not know. But he did know that he was alive, as
alive as anyone could be or had a right to be in the Place of the
Dead. And he did know, gratefully, that the intense cold of the River
of Ice was gone.

He wondered how long he had been unconscious. He blinked his eyes. A
balmy, pink-tinted sky. A pink sun, not on the horizon, when indeed
the sun might be pink, but overhead. On the horizon--Hultax blinked
again and thought he was mad--a second sun, smaller, paler, the ghost
of green in color.

The royal barge was in ruins. It had piled up on some rocks. The bier
of Jlomec, Prince of Nadia, had been thrown clear. He could see it on
the bank, also in ruins. He stood up unsteadily, then waded through
the shallow water in which he'd regained consciousness, over to the
wreck of the royal barge. The fingers of his right hand were poised
inches from the hilt of his whip-sword. Slay Bram Forest and the girl
if the wreck hadn't already killed them? He shook his head. Bram
Forest knew more about this strange place, this world of the pink sun
and the green sun, than he did.

       *       *       *       *       *

He climbed over the wreckage, and finally came upon the two bodies. He
went down on his knees beside them. They were covered with blood. They
were broken--broken being the only word that could describe them. They
had been crushed, perhaps by falling timber, perhaps by the bier of
Jlomec as it hurtled over the side. There probably was not a bone in
either of their bodies, at least a major bone, which had not been
crushed.

They were dead.

With a craftiness which surprised even himself, Hultax remembered the
dead Bram Forest's words. It was the bracelet with the shining disc
which gave Bram Forest the power to appear and disappear at will, as
Retoc had described. Or, as Bram Forest had put it, to journey between
the worlds. Carefully, Hultax took the bracelet--it was miraculously
intact--from the crushed, broken arm of Bram Forest's corpse. He
circled his own arm with it and felt, or imagined he felt, an
instantaneous source of power surge through his body. Without looking
back at the broken bodies of the man and woman who had found love and,
finding it, died in each other's arms, he made his way from the river
bank across a pleasant green meadow. Far in the distance he saw a dark
blur which looked like a forest. It was many miles away, almost at the
limit of vision.

Yet, incredibly, it seemed to rush up at him. It was not merely that
Hultax the Abarian walked with a warrior's long stride toward the
forest. It was as if the forest rushed toward him. A different world.
He remembered Bram Forest's words vaguely. A warped world? Something
like that. Naturally, Hultax was afraid. This was the Place of the
Dead, wasn't it? But still, Bram Forest's cool if little-understood
scientific explanation quieted his fear. Besides, didn't he have the
bracelet-disc-amulet? What could happen to him now?

Bylanus the Golden Ape, only two-thousand seven hundred years old,
quite young as Golden Apes went, saw the wreck of the barge from a
great distance. He extended his vision through warp-space and spotted
the tiny figure of a man trudging away from the wreckage. Bylanus
squinted, and shifted his buttocks on the saddle. Bylanus was fifteen
feet tall and weighed eight-hundred pounds. The steed he rode, about
twice the size of an Earth elephant, looked like a blown-up cross
between a Tarthian stad and an Earth horse.

Bylanus stared, then sat up very straight in his stirrups. Something
gleamed on the man's arm. Bylanus gaped.

It was the bracelet of Portox-saviour.

Bylanus used his will to psychokinesthize the man. The man, still
apparently trudging along, sped toward him.

Bylanus climbed down from his stallion and prepared to bow, all
fifteen feet and eight hundred pounds of him, before the man.

At first Hultax could think only of fleeing. Abruptly before him stood
a monster-stad and a man. No, not a man. A man-like figure pelted with
soft, smooth, lusterous, golden fur. The stad--the not-quite-stad--was
five times bigger than a stad had a right to be. The man, even as he
unexpectedly bent before Hultax, was almost three times Hultax's
height. Man? No, not a man. Hultax, rooted with fear to the spot,
unable to run, opened his mouth to cry out. But his vocal chords were
paralyzed.

       *       *       *       *       *

This was no man. It was the Golden Ape of legend, the Golden Ape of
the Place of the Dead....

"Portox-saviour," said the Golden Ape quite distinctly. Then he
pointed a forefinger almost the size of Hultax' forearm at the
bracelet Hultax wore.

Hultax took a deep breath and could feel the strength returning to his
legs. Like all military officers, he was an opportunist. He had to be,
for in battle one had to seize upon opportunity as soon as it
appeared, if one were to win at all....

Hultax said, his voice surprisingly steady: "You may rise."

The Ape did so. The stallion pawed the ground, and great clods flew.
Hultax was trembling, but the Ape, speaking in Hultax' own language,
in the language of all Tarth, said: "Are you really from Portox? It
seems like only yesterday he was here although, of course, your people
and mine measure time differently."

"I am from Portox," Hultax said. He wished he could keep his knees
from trembling.

"Portox-saviour said that one day a man would come, to ask us for help
even as Portox helped us in our time of troubles," the Ape proclaimed.

"Yes," Hultax muttered.

"What kind of help do you wish?"

Hultax stared, saying nothing. He did not know what to say. He lacked
the imagination to make something up. Somehow, he knew it was terribly
important. He knew without knowing how he knew that his life might
depend on his answer.

"Well?" the Golden Ape asked gently.

"I ... that is...."

The Ape's eyes narrowed as he looked down at Hultax. "You _are_ from
Portox?"

"Yes, yes. Of course."

"I see you have the bracelet."

"Yes, here is the bracelet."

"And the cloak of Portox?" demanded the Ape. "The cloak Portox
foretold you would wear?"

"I--I lost the cloak in my journey," lied Hultax, not knowing about
any cloak. There, he thought, that ought to satisfy him.

But the Ape said: "There was no cloak."

"No cloak? No cloak!"

"I made that up, to test you. You're not from Portox."

The stallion pawed the ground and looked up and then down at Hultax,
snorting. Hultax, trembling, wished he could melt into the ground.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Still," Hultax said, shaking, "I am from Portox. You tried to trick
me. You...."

"We shall see," the Ape said, still pleasantly. "Come."

The ground rolled, or so it seemed to Hultax. The forest loomed ahead
of him, then trees were all around him, then they stood on a rolling
plain again.

"Where--did you take me?"

The Ape smiled. He seemed quite human despite his size, despite his
fur. The stallion pawed the ground impatiently.

"Behold," said the Ape.

Something on the fringe of the forest screamed. It was an awful sound
and it made the hackles stand upright on Hultax's bull-neck. He drew
his whip-sword and faced the forest.

"Well, man," chided the Golden Ape, "and do you need a weapon? Portox
told us we would know his man because his man, unarmed, would be able
to conquer the wild boar of the Kranuian Wood. And you?"

The screaming came again. Terrified, Hultax did not fling his weapon
aside. Wild boar? What wild boar ... time enough later ... to convince
the Ape....

The boar emerged. It was almost as big as a man and covered with dirty
gray hair. Its tusks were two feet long. The stallion whinnied but
remained perfectly still. The Golden Ape waited and watched. The boar
charged.

Hultax's right arm blurred and the mobile blade of the whip-sword
whizzed through air and struck the boar's meaty shoulder. The boar
screamed, and came on.

It was, Hultax realized in despair, only a superficial wound. The boar
came on, bleeding, furious. He tried to lunge aside. He yanked at the
whip-sword and it came loose, making him lose his balance. The boar
reached him, screaming.

Never slackening its pace, the boar gored him, and wheeled about,
clods flying, to gore again. Hultax' voice bubbled in his throat. The
boar was on him again, its tusks sharp as razors....

Finally it stood clear, nervously eyeing Bylanus and the stallion.
Then it turned and, slowly, with great dignity, retreated into the
Kranuian Wood, which was its home.

The man, Bylanus saw at a glance, was dead. As an imposter, he had
deserved to die. Bylanus quickly dug a shallow grave with a large,
sharp-edged stone, and rolled the body in. As he did so he noticed
that the bracelet--the bracelet of Portox-saviour, or, more probably,
a copy of that bracelet intended to trick him--had been battered,
punctured, and broken by the boar. Even if it had been the real
bracelet, the amazing steel-silver disc of Portox-saviour, it would
now be useless. Sighing, Bylanus buried it with Hultax' body.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bylanus mounted his steed and galloped toward the river. He could have
psychokinesthized himself there, but the day was brilliant and clear,
and he was in no great hurry. At last he reached the wreck of the
royal barge of Nadia. He did not pause to examine Jlomec's bier, he
had seen such funerary devices before.

Something in the wreck itself confused him. There was a man. There was
a woman. That fit the ritual--two servants to accompany dead royalty
on its way. This was the custom of the Nadians. But the man....

On the man's crushed arm, the arm completely covered with blood, was a
mark. It was as if something--say, a band of metal--had protected the
arm at one point. For circling the upper arm was a band of skin not
bloody like the rest, wide in the shape of a disc, then narrow all
around.

The bracelet of Portox-saviour! thought Bylanus. Had this dead man
worn it? Had the imposter, now slain by the wild boar, taken it from
him?

_Oh Portox-saviour, Portox-saviour, how long dead? Am I too late, is
it too late for this man, your heir...?_

As gently as he could, the huge Bylanus lifted the two bodies and put
them in his saddle-bags. He faced the Kranuian Wood astride. The
stallion held its head up, alert, ready. They psychokinesthized.

And disappeared in a twinkling with Bram Forest and Ylia, both of whom
were dead.



CHAPTER XVI

_The Raging Beast_


Although once mighty Ofridia of Tarth and certainly the nations of
Earth had outstripped Bylanus' world in the physical science, the
planet of the pink and green suns was supreme in biology. Thus had it
needed Portox' help, a hundred Earth-Tarthian years before, when
run-down entropy threatened its very existence. On the other hand,
through biology, the science of Bylanus' world had come a long way in
the conquest of death and destroyed human tissue. So it was that with
some faint ray of confidence Bylanus brought the two broken bodies to
the single large city of his park-like planet. There, tenderly, he
left them in the care of specialists at the regeneration station, and
began his long vigil.

... sensation and movement.

Hardly anything at first. Bram Forest dreamed of dreaming. The motion
was gentle, warm, comfortable.

The glow of life and not the cold breath of death....

With it, with the first stirrings of regeneration, came the shadow of
pain. But it was far away and almost impalpable, pain understood
rather than felt. And slowly the pain departed. There came a time when
Bram Forest realized he was not breathing, was, indeed, immersed in
liquid.

He floated, helpless, serene, strangely content.

... Until, with the first signs of impatience, strength flooded
through his regenerated limbs.

       *       *       *       *       *

"In every cell of a living creature's body," Orro the bio-technician
explained to Bylanus, "there is the potential for complete and perfect
regeneration. For, whereas the eye is an organ to see with, in every
one of the millions of tiny cells making up the eye is the
gene-pattern not merely for the eye but for the rest of the body.
Theoretically then, Bylanus, if we are given but a single intact cell
of a living--or once-living--organism, we ought to be able to
reproduce the organism in its entirety. This is not supernatural. It
is not creation of life: we can create nothing. The secret of creation
is not ours here at this laboratory. But we have mastered the secret
of recreation. Nurtured by the life-giving fluid, their development
controlled by their own genes, the two human beings you brought are
being made whole again."

Bylanus nodded. Orro the bio-technician was loquacious and spoke
quickly, confidently, with mild pedantic enthusiasm. As for Bylanus,
he awaited the regeneration of the man who had worn Portox-saviour's
bracelet. He looked at the bodies in the vat, hanging upside-down,
floating head down, rocking gently in the warm, circulating
life-fluid. He waited....

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest took his first breath. The first thing he said was: "Ylia,
Ylia...."

Bylanus met them after the vat had been drained and a door had opened
for them. He told them what had happened, including the death of
Hultax. Then he added:

"As far as I am concerned, there can be no doubt as to your identity.
But the bracelet is lost forever and there will be some who doubt your
identity." Abruptly, he seemed to change the subject: "How do you
feel?"

"Good as new," Bram Forest said. He was naked. He was tingling with
health and well-being, as if he'd awakened from a long, health-giving
sleep. He looked at Ylia, her skin glowing, her hair gleaming, her
glorious body a shining promise. Then he frowned. Bylanus' words took
meaning. "You want me to fight the Boar of the Kranuian Wood, is that
it?"

"Yes," Bylanus said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest shrugged. "Coming here was not my idea, although Portox
somehow realized it would be so."

"Slay the Kranuian Boar, proving your identity without question, and
all the Golden Apes will be yours to command."

"Yes, but did Portox really feel I must wreak upon Abaria and the
Abarians the same destruction they brought to Ofridia? If I destroy
Retoc the Abarian responsible for what happened a hundred years ago,
wouldn't that be enough? I don't need the Golden Apes for that. I can
do it myself. I must do it myself."

"Tarth," said Bylanus, "is a world of warring nations. But here on the
planet of two suns we live in peace. We are strong but know not the
meaning of war. Is that what Portox-saviour wished for your people?"

"Perhaps," Bram Forest said.

"Then," Ylia told him, speaking for the first time, "even if you slay
Retoc, his legions will not willingly give up their arms."

Bram Forest nodded slowly. The idea of a Tarth-wide holocaust did not
appeal to him, but if all Tarth could be shown the folly of war when
its most powerful army went down to defeat before the Golden Apes....

"Thank you," Bram Forest said humbly to the Golden Ape. He had a
vision--almost mystical--of a time in the future, perhaps the near
future, when all Tarth knew nothing but the ways of peace. "When we
return on the River of Ice we want you to accompany us. I'm ready to
meet your boar."

Ylia held him. Tears glistened in her eyes. "Bram Forest," she said
tremulously. "Now that I've found you, I don't want you to be
hurt--ever again."

Bram Forest responded: "Don't worry, Ylia. If Portox hadn't known I'd
be more than a match for the boar, he never would have established its
conquest as proof of my identity."

"But ... but don't you see, you've been regenerated, as Bylanus said.
You may not be as strong as you were."

Bram Forest looked at Bylanus, who shrugged. Bylanus lifted them when
Bram Forest nodded. The park-like terrain flashed by. A dark forest
loomed. The Kranuian Wood....

Close at hand, an animal screamed.

       *       *       *       *       *

"How do I look, Prokliam?" Volna asked her seneschal.

He bowed before her. "You are lovely, O My Queen."

Volna smiled. She wore the royal purple of Nadia in a gown which fell,
clinging as if sentient and voluptuous, to the wonderful curves of her
body. "I'm not your Queen yet," she said, laughing.

"A mere formality, My Queen."

"I am Volna, Virgin Princess of Nadia, sister to Bontarc the King."

"Huh!" snorted the old man. "That is your official title. But what do
titles matter? When this day ends you will rule all Tarth side by side
with Retoc the Abarian."

Yes, Volna thought. With Retoc the Abarian. But how long would _that_
alliance last? Would either of them be content to share power with the
other? Wouldn't there come a day when she would give the nod to
Prokliam and the legions would march against those of Abaria chanting,
"All power to Volna! All power to Volna the Beautiful!" The thought of
power, power over strong men, over leaders of nations, made her giddy
with desire.

All the royal blood of Tarth was gathered in Nadia City now, for the
funeral games. She knew Retoc's plan: her spies had confirmed it.
Retoc's legions would slay the rulers of the multiple nations and
clans of Tarth and one by one, stunned, leaderless, the small nations
would flock to the banners of Abaria and Nadia. If, then, Retoc had in
mind to betray her and claim all power for himself, her own legions
would be rested and ready. And Bontarc? she thought. What of Bontarc,
her brother?

As if he could read her thoughts, Prokliam said, "I have arranged the
lists for the dueling which will end the games, majesty. Bontarc, as
you know, expects a duel to the first blood with some competent
whip-swordsman." Prokliam licked his thin, dry lips. "He will be
confronted, instead by a duel to the death with Retoc, the best
swordsman of all Tarth. To flee would mean cowardice. The army would
then be loyal to you, majesty. To remain and fight would mean only one
thing."

"Death," said Volna softly.

She could hear the legions. The legions seemed to chant in her ears:
"All power to Volna the Beautiful!"

She thought of the day's funeral games. Games for the memory of Jlomec
the Prince, indeed. They were games for her, for Volna. They would be
a party celebrating the rise to power of Volna, Virgin Princess of
Nadia. But of course neither Nadia nor Bontarc its rightful ruler knew
that yet. And when they did, Retoc and his legions would make sure
they could do nothing about it.

The Games would be a feast. Volna's feast....

_All power to Volna._

       *       *       *       *       *

The Kranuian Boar came screaming from the forest.

Its small, close-set eyes found Bram at once. If it had seen Bylanus
and Ylia, it ignored them. Four hundred pounds of muscle and sinew, it
made, stomping and pawing, for Bram.

He side-stepped nimbly, saw the massive head go down, felt one of the
wicked tusks brush his thigh with fire. He stumbled and almost fell.
If he fell, he would not rise again. The boar would finish him first.

"Bram Forest!" Ylia screamed.

He got up and grasped the tusks. He was dragged along, furrowing the
ground. The huge head snorted close to his own. The boar's breath
almost made him gag. Then, before the boar could smash him into a
tree-trunk, he let go and rolled over and over and quickly stood up.

The boar did not wait for him to regain his breath, but came charging
at once. This time Bram Forest waited until the last possible instant
before the tusks would impale him. Then he leaped, twisting around in
air. It was a prodigious leap and brought a word of exclamation even
to Bylanus' lips. He landed on the hard-muscled back of the boar and
at once clamped his knees firmly against its sinewy flanks as if he
had been trained all his life for this job.

The boar reared and bucked and swung its great body from side to side,
trying to dislodge its tormentor. But Bram Forest clung as if all
Tarth depended on the outcome of this contest--as, perhaps, it did.

The boar ducked its head. Bram Forest fell forward, but his knees
locked. The boar rolled over, but moving so swiftly that the eye could
hardly follow him, Bram Forest squirmed out from under and was seated
astride again when the boar got to its feet.

Then, leaning forward, Bram Forest grasped the two tusks and began to
pull the boar's head up and back toward him.

The animal's screaming became squealing. Slowly the head went back,
the short, almost non-existent neck strained, the beady eyes darted.

Then there was a loud snapping sound and the boar squealed once and
fell over on its side with a broken neck.

Bram Forest, panting, the muscles of his legs quivering, stood clear.
Bylanus touched his great golden head to the ground. Ylia ran to Bram
Forest and flung her arms about his neck. "I was afraid," she said. "I
was so afraid you would be hurt."

Bram Forest kissed her. She clung to him, sobbing his name when their
lips parted. Finally Bram Forest disengaged himself and said:

"The poem, Ylia. We've seen an ape, a boar, a stallion. This world is
the 'land beyond the stars.' But was the boar also the raging beast?"

Ylia shrugged. Bylanus stood up and told Bram Forest, "The Golden Apes
are ready to serve you in any way you wish."

Three worlds, Bram Forest thought. One which Portox had saved from
doom, one which had been the haven in which Bram Forest had grown to
manhood, and one in which all their destinies soon would be written.

"Then Tarth thanks you," Bram Forest told the Golden Ape Bylanus.
"Assemble your fighters. We're going back up the River of Ice."

"To Nadia City?" Ylia asked.

Bram Forest nodded grimly. "To Nadia City--and Retoc."

       *       *       *       *       *

Bontarc, King of Nadia, asked his royal guest, "You like the Games so
far?"

They sat, with Princess Volna, in the box of honor at the Amphitheater
of Nadia. "Aye, I like them," Retoc said slowly. "But sire, I would
like them much better if they were not to commemorate the passing of
your noble brother, the Prince Jlomec."

Bontarc nodded his head in gratitude. "That was well-spoken, Retoc,"
he said.

Retoc went on: "Have you any idea who killed him so treacherously?
Jlomec was not a fighting man."

"None," Bontarc admitted. He missed entirely the smile which passed
between Retoc and Princess Volna.

"Well," Bontarc said after a while, "if you will excuse me, I must go
down below to prepare for the dueling. Under the circumstances I'm
hardly inclined to participate in the Games, but my people expect it
of me."

"Yes, brother," Volna said softly. "They do. Oh, they do."

And Bontarc went. Retoc looked at Volna. "I'd best get ready myself,"
he said. Volna nodded her lovely head.

A blood-lusting animal cry welled up from a hundred thousand throats
as the gladiators of Nadia marched out across the sands of the
amphitheater to do battle with the fierce snow-sloths of the Plains of
Ice.

While several jeks from the Gates of Ice, Retoc's legions waited....

       *       *       *       *       *

"Wait here," Bram Forest told Bylanus, who had led them safely, along
with the vanguard of the Golden Apes, back up the River of Ice.

"What will you do, Bram Forest?"

"According to Ylia, we can trust Bontarc of Nadia. He's a fighting
man, but he craves peace for all Tarth."

"I'm sure of it," Ylia said. "Bontarc didn't send us to the Place of
the Dead. Princess Volna did. And long ago, according to the stories
the Wayfarers of Ofrid tell, Bontarc and your mother, Queen Evalla,
were allies striving to establish universal peace throughout Tarth.
Besides, despite his civility and fairness, Bontarc losses no love on
Retoc of Abaria."

"And if you need us?" Bylanus asked.

"We'll get a signal through to you," Bram Forest said. With Ylia he
climbed into a skiff and poled it out into the river.

Now the riverbanks were deserted, except for the solitary stilt-birds,
tall as men, wading out into the frigid water, their low-pitched calls
all but swallowed by the sound the cold wind made rustling through the
river rushes.

After a while the skiff came to a bend in the river. It was the last
turn before the Gates of Ice--and Nadia City. Here the wind blew more
strongly, and there was a section of rushes which had been cleared,
cut probably by an Ice Fields nomad who had used the tall rushes as
fuel.

"Look!" Ylia cried suddenly, startled.

Through the gap in the rushes, at a distance of two or three jeks
across the flat plain from the river, Bram Forest saw an armed
encampment. There were tents with flying standards, tethered stads,
pyramids of stacked spears like hayricks, and pacing sentries.

"What can it mean?" Ylia asked. "Those standards are Abarian."

"Retoc," Bram Forest said. He lifted the pole and felt the mud of the
river-bottom cling to it before it came clear. He allowed the skiff to
drift toward the bank. "Retoc's planning treachery. We'll have to go
back and alert the Golden Apes. Bylanus and his Apes can destroy
Retoc's legions before they even march on Nadia City."

"But we can't go back, Bram. If Retoc's army is here, ready, then
what's happening in Nadia City? Who can say what Retoc is doing?
You'll have to go ahead and stop him--or at least delay him. I'll go
back for Bylanus."

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest shook his head. "I can't let you go alone, Ylia. Not with
the Abarian legions so close."

"But I must, don't you see?"

Bram Forest frowned. There did not seem any other way, but he was
reluctant. "I love you, Ylia. I couldn't let--"

"What happens in Nadia City today is more important than our love,
Bram Forest! What would our love mean if Retoc the Abarian ruled all
Tarth?"

"Then you take the skiff," Bram Forest said finally. "I can make my
way to the city along the bank."

"No. The army is still encamped. They won't do anything for some time
yet. See? All their tents are still standing."

That was true enough. "Besides," Ylia went on, "we don't know what
Retoc is planning in the city. You can reach it faster by skiff. I'll
go back for Bylanus on foot."

The logic of what Ylia said could not be refuted. With sinking heart
Bram Forest helped her from the skiff. He kissed her quickly. "I love
you, Ylia," he said.

"And I love you, Bram Forest."

"Be careful. Keep hidden in the rushes. Tell Bylanus to use his
judgment in attacking or waiting for Retoc's legions to make the first
move."

Ylia's pretty head nodded. Then she ducked into the rushes and was
gone. Bram Forest looked after her until the rustling in the rushes
stopped, then he poled the skiff once more out into the center of the
river and sped swiftly toward the Gates of Ice.

No one stopped him. No guards were posted. He beached the skiff and
sprinted through the gates and through the city and up its biggest
hill toward the amphitheater. Then, only a jek's distance away, he
heard the crowd at the funeral games. They roared suddenly in a frenzy
of excitement and another part of Portox's poem slipped into place.
The crowd watching the games in Nadia City was the raging beast,
blood-lusting, expectant, animal-savage, whipped into a fever of
goggle-eyed enthusiasm and ready to move, _en-masse_, in whatever
direction a strong leader might push them.

A strong leader....

Retoc? Or Bram Forest? Which one?

       *       *       *       *       *

Pirum the Abarian shifted his weight uncomfortably, leaning down on
the haft of his spear. The whole idea of posting pickets along the
bank of the river seemed unnecessary to him. They could not actually
see the river through the rushes, and they dared not go closer for
fear of being spotted by whatever traffic moved on the icy waters.
Then what was the point of them standing here, half-frozen with the
cold, waiting for an assailant who would never come?

And while he was thinking thus, the girl virtually walked into Pirum's
arms. At first he heard a faint rustling in the rushes and, before he
could investigate, the tallest of the dry plants had parted and a
lovely bronze-skinned girl appeared. She turned to run, but Pirum
caught her in his muscular arms and held her despite her struggles.

She bit his arm and, with an oath, he caught her hair and twisted her
head back. "Who are you?" he said. "Who are you, eh?"

The girl glowered at him.

Pirum dragged her along. She continued to struggle. Shaking his head,
he hit her on the jaw with his fist and caught her before she could
fall. Then, swinging her up over his broad shoulder, he stalked
through the rushes toward Nadia City.



CHAPTER XVII

_The Prison Without Bars_


No one tried to stop Bram Forest until he reached the very gates of
the amphitheater. But there a guard with drawn whip-sword barred the
way and demanded: "You don't look Nadian to me. What delegation are
you with, man?"

Bram Forest had no time to parry words with words. He tried to push
his way past the guard who, too surprised to thrust with his weapon,
used his free hand to grab Bram Forest by the shoulder and spin him
around. Bram Forest drove his left fist into the guard's belly and
heard the whoosh of air escaping from his lungs.

That was the last thing he heard for some time. A second guard crept
up quietly behind him and struck expertly with the hilt of his
whip-sword just behind the left ear. Bram Forest fell as if the ground
dropped out from under him.

"By all the fiery gods of Tarth, will you look at that!" the first
guard exclaimed.

The second guard could only gawk, not comprehending.

The unconscious man was growing tenuous.

The first guard in confused alarm, lashed down with the whip-sword.
But its point passed through Bram Forest's now transparent body
without meeting any resistance.

"Right through him! Right through him!" cried the guard.

And, by the time he said it, and coiled his sword again, Bram Forest
had vanished.

       *       *       *       *       *

When an urgent message had come for Retoc, the Princess Volna, alone
in the royal box, had decided to investigate the matter herself. She
had to hurry, though. In not many minutes, Retoc and Bontarc would
find themselves face to face on the sands of the amphitheater.
Wouldn't Bontarc be surprised! Too proud to flee, not swordsman enough
to match the mighty Retoc....

"Yes, yes, what is it?" she snapped irritably when she entered the
dungeon-like ready-room below the amphitheater sands. She was in a
hurry to return to her box, lest she miss the duel between Bontarc and
Retoc. Alone in the ready-room was a soldier in the uniform of Abaria.

"Begging your pardon, ma'am," said the soldier. "My message is for
Retoc of Abaria."

"And I tell you Retoc of Abaria is not here to receive it." Volna
clapped her hands and two of her own guards appeared. "I am the
Princess Volna. Well?"

Pirum looked at her, at the armed guards flanking her on either side,
at the door through which she had entered, at the ready-room's second
door. "Very well," he said at last, and opened the second door,
beckoning.

Volna went to the doorway and looked. She gasped involuntarily, hardly
able to believe her eyes. There on the stone floor of a smaller
ready-room, only now regaining consciousness, was the Virgin Wayfarer
of Ofrid, she who had seen Retoc slay Jlomec, she who had been sent by
Volna herself to sure death on the Journey of No Return. Terror
gripped her.

"What does this mean?" Volna cried. "Where did you find her? Where,
man? Speak!"

"On the river, ladyship."

"On the river? Returning from the Place of the Dead?"

"No, ladyship. Heading toward the Place of the Dead."

Volna went to the girl and stood over her. "You! What's your name?"

"Ylia," the girl said.

"What were you trying to do, Ylia?"

The girl said nothing.

Volna called to Pirum, who came at once. "Hit her," Volna said.

Grasping Ylia by her hair, Pirum struck her face with his open hand.
Her head snapped back. The mark of his fingers was on her face. She
said nothing.

"Hit her again," Volna said.

Pirum struck Ylia a second time. The girl whimpered, but held her
tongue. "Where is your friend, that giant of a man?" Volna asked.

Again Pirum hit Ylia when she would say nothing. Finally Volna
shrugged. "She'll talk, given enough of that. What's _your_ name,
man?"

"Pirum, ladyship."

"Very well, Pirum. My guards and I are returning to our seats. There
is a duel I wouldn't want to miss. All Tarth will reap its
consequences. Meanwhile, stay with this girl and do what you must do
to make her talk. It might be important."

Pirum bowed. "Yes, ladyship," he said, and watched the others depart.
Then, when they were alone, Ylia surprised him by flying at him, nails
bared, like a wildcat. He fought off her attack and struck her a
savage open-handed blow, and she fell back. At least this, Pirum
thought advancing on her, might be an interesting assignment.

       *       *       *       *       *

"... hit by that cab, mac."

"You all right?"

"He's getting up, ain't he?"

"Jeez, I swear," the sweating taxi driver said to the crowd which had
gathered about the prostrate man, "he popped up outa nowhere. One
second I'm driving along, looking for a fare, the next, he's standing
right in front of me. I almost pushed the brake through the floor,
honest, but--"

"Ylia," the stricken man said.

"Hey now, take it easy."

"What he say, anyhow?"

"... be going to a costume ball or something. Lookit that outfit he's
wearing, willya? What's he supposed to be, a man from Mars or
something? I read in the papers where Mars was pretty close a while
back. My kid thinks there are...."

"Aw, shudap about your kid."

"Need any help, mister?"

"No. No, thank you. I'm all right."

"... got a nasty crack on his head, is all. See? See the blood?"

"He's getting up."

"... a cop. When you don't want 'em, they're around. Now you need
them, where in heck are they, that's what I wanna know."

"The bracelet!" the stricken man said in sudden alarm. He stared at
his own right arm in confusion, then his left. His arms were bare.

"You wasn't wearing no bracelet, mac," someone said.

"No bracelet," he said. "No bracelet." His eyes looked vague,
confused.

After a while a policeman came and took in the situation at a glance.
"All right, all right," he bawled. "Step back and givemair, givemair,
will you?"

The crowd dispersed slowly, and the policeman talked for a while with
the taxi-driver, then with the stricken man.

"My name?" the stricken man said in answer to a question. "Bram
Forest. Yes, Bram Forest. But I don't have the bracelet. The bracelet
is gone, forever. Without the bracelet I can't...." his voice trailed
off.

"He drunk?" the policeman asked the cab driver.

"Search me."

"'A prison without bars,'" the man recited. "Earth is my prison,
forever. Ylia. Ylia!"

The driver made a circular motion with his forefinger, in the general
vicinity of his temple.

"You both better come down the station house with me," the policeman
said.

"Aw, officer, I'll lose some fares."

"Anyhow. The guy talks batty, but he don't look drunk. We got to
figure this here out."

"Ylia," the man said, almost as if the sound were a name and he was
crying out to the owner of that name across an unthinkable abyss.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bontarc, King of Nadia, felt as good as could be expected under the
circumstances. Now that the first shock of bereavement had passed, he
knew no mourning would bring back his dead brother Jlomec. And the sun
of Tarth was hot on the amphitheater sands as Bontarc stood awaiting
his as yet unknown adversary. He flexed and uncoiled his whip-sword,
smiling in expectancy. He was a competent swordsman, among the dozen
or so best in Nadia. The duel-to-first-blood would be just what he
needed. Win or lose, he'd feel a lot better afterwards. And meanwhile,
he was a king, wasn't he? The adulation of the crowd swept down all
around him, lifting his spirits. The corpse of Prince Jlomec,
treacherously slain, seemed very far away--as, indeed, it was....

A roar of expectancy went up from a hundred thousand throats as
Bontarc's adversary appeared at the other end of the arena. The sun
was dazzling. At first Bontarc saw the swordsman only as a dot across
the gleaming sands. But now the roar of expectancy had turned to a
groan of dismay, which was followed by a silence, as of death, then an
eager whispered buzzing. Why should this be? Why....

The figure came closer on the burning sands. Bontarc squinted. Was it
possible? He felt a tremor go through his body.

It was Retoc of Abaria!

"To the death, Bontarc," Retoc said softly, savagely, as they
approached.

Bontarc shook his head imperceptibly. He was no coward, but knew he
was no match for Retoc and didn't see why he should lay down his life
on the amphitheater sands. "I'll not fight you to the death, Retoc of
Abaria," he said.

Retoc shrugged as if it weren't very important. "Well," he said
slowly, "if you don't want to kill the slayer of your brother...."

Bontarc charged.

Laughing, Retoc was ready for him.

       *       *       *       *       *

"... Please ... please ... you're just wasting your time. I ... won't ...
tell you."

"No?" Pirum said, panting. He saw the girl through a haze of anger,
frustration, and desire. She was naked, her lips were bloody, but her
eyes still flashed defiance. Pirum, like most Abarians, was something
of a sadist.

"Oh, you'll talk," he said. "You'll talk."

"... never...."

He dug his strong finger cruelly into her tender body.

"Bram Forest...." she cried.

       *       *       *       *       *

The policeman behind the desk was saying things. Bram Forest heard the
droning voice, but not the words. Ylia, he thought. Ylia. A moment
before, he actually believed he heard her cry out to him in pain. But
that couldn't be. Besides, what could he do about it? He was trapped
forever on Earth, without the bracelet which could send him, almost on
the wings of thought, back to Tarth, to Ylia, to his destiny.

_I love you, girl of Tarth, he thought. I love you, Ylia, more than
words and more than worlds._

Something whisperingly cold plucked at him, and for an instant his
heart was stilled.

_Ylia!_

Could his love for the girl of Tarth draw him across the unthinkable
abyss?

"... immodestly attired and ..." the desk sergeant was saying.

_Ylia, Ylia, call me! Draw me to you, girl of Tarth._

_... bramforesthelp...._

_Ylia! I hear you! I hear you!_

"What the heck's he doing? Praying?" the patrolman asked.

For Bram Forest was staring devoutly at nothing, staring at the air in
front of his face there in the mundane precinct room as if it held a
radiant vision.

Suddenly the desk sergeant's jaw dropped open. The patrolman said:
"Hey, wait a mo...."

Bram Forest was becoming tenuous, vanishing.

       *       *       *       *       *

Insubstantial, transparent, the image of Bram Forest soared past the
encampment of the Golden Apes. "Bylanus!" he called, and his voice was
not insubstantial. Bylanus came at once.

"If the Abarian legions move, attack them, Bylanus."

"As you will, Bram Forest. But you...."

"Don't worry about me. I can control it, I can control it."

Bylanus passed an enormous hand through Bram Forest's body.

"I'll materialize, when I find Ylia. She draws me...." Already the
vision was fading.

"Farewell, Bram Forest."

_Farewell...._

Was it merely the sound of the wind along the banks of the River of
Ice? Bylanus wondered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Something struck Pirum's shoulder. The girl crouched, sobbing, at his
feet. Pirum whirled.

His face went white when he saw the man. He swung his fist
desperately, and the man blocked it without effort. His arm was
caught, as in a vise. He screamed. Something snapped in his arm.
Something streaked at his face....

He took the blow from Bram Forest's fist under the point of the jaw.
His head snapped back against the dungeon wall and memory and desire
and lust and life oozed out through his smashed skull.

"Ylia!"

"You came, Bram Forest."

"I'll never leave you again."

"Yes, now, in the amphitheater. I think...."

Overhead, the crowd roared. Bram Forest listened for a fraction of a
second, and raced for the stairs.

When word of the duel between Bontarc and Retoc came by courier to
Laugrim, second in command of the Abarian army under the missing
Hultax, Laugrim decided it was time to attack. He gave the signal for
his army to march on the city, and the signal was passed from
signal-fire to signal-fire in the huge encampment. In a very short
time, the army's vanguard began to march. _There's no force on all
Tarth strong enough to stop us now_, Laugrim thought exultantly. _This
day, Retoc would rule Tarth._

He was right. There was no Tarthian army strong enough to stop them.
But the Army of the Golden Apes which, after Bram Forest's warning,
had deployed itself at the very gates of Nadia City so the people in
the amphitheater might witness the battle, was not of Tarth....

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well, Bontarc," cried Retoc, "can't you do better than that? Surely a
king...."

For many minutes now Retoc, the finest swordsman on Tarth, had been
toying with his adversary. He could have killed Bontarc a dozen times
over, but he waited, driving the Nadian ruler back, playing with him,
making him do incredible gymnastics in order to survive, three times
returning his whip-sword to him when it had been torn from the
Nadian's hands.

All Nadia--and all the rulers of Tarth--watched spellbound. It seemed
to them that the Nadian ruler had gone into the contest willingly.
They made no move, and under the ethics that governed their world,
would make no move, to stop the uneven contest.

Retoc's blurring sword-point whipped and flashed, drawing blood from a
dozen superficial wounds. The smile never left Retoc's face.
Desperately, knowing his life was forfeit whenever Retoc chose,
Bontarc parried the whip-lashing blade.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest emerged into the dazzling sunlight of the arena floor.
Squinting, he saw the figures across the sand.

The men before him were Bontarc of Nadia and Retoc, slayer of his
mother, destroyer of Ofridia.

Retoc saw him first, and cried out exultantly. His wrist blurred, his
whip-sword flashed, the point singing, and Bontarc's sword flew from
his fingers. "You!" Retoc cried.

The sword-point had slashed an artery on Bontarc's wrist. The blood
spurted out and Bontarc stood there, dazed, holding the wound shut
with his left hand.

"Are you all right, sire?" Bram Forest asked.

"I can manage until a doctor binds--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Bram Forest picked up the Nadian ruler's whip-sword and faced his
enemy, sword to sword, at last.

Retoc looked at him, and laughed. "I almost killed you once," he said.
His hand barely seemed to move, but the point of his blade, whipping,
flashing, was everywhere. Bram Forest parried desperately. "I'll
finish the job now," Retoc vowed.

Then Bram Forest did an unexpected thing. He used the whip-sword not
as a sword: he couldn't hope to match Retoc's skill as a swordsman. He
used it as a whip is used, his great arm slicing back and forth
through air, up over his head and down, the long length of the
uncoiled blading whipping and darting like something alive across the
sands.

Retoc retreated two steps, and lunged with what he hoped would be a
death blow.

Prokliam the seneschal was trembling so much he could hardly stand.
Just outside the amphitheater, in the very shadow of the amphitheater
wall, the great Golden Apes of legend had materialized. There were
thousands of them, and they were three times the size of men, and
methodically and with great ease, they were destroying the Abarian
army before it could enter the amphitheater.

Without the Abarian army, Volna and Retoc would never subjugate Nadia,
never rule Tarth. But Prokliam the seneschal had committed himself to
their cause. Now only death awaited him.

Or, had he committed himself? Couldn't he change sides before it was
too late? Couldn't he slay Volna, here in the royal box, for all to
see? Couldn't he become a hero of the people? He was confused. He
wished he could think clearly, but he was more frightened than he had
ever been in his life. There was something wrong with his logic.
Something.... Well, no matter. Slay Volna first, call her traitor, and
then worry about his logic--

He turned away from the wall and marched down the flights of stairs
between the citizens of Nadia, flanked in two wildly shouting mobs on
either side of the aisle, and plunged a knife into Volna's back,
killing her instantly.

The people roared, and rose up. Like a tide they swept toward
Prokliam, the seneschal who had wanted to be prime minister.

"No, no!" he cried. "No, please. You don't understand. ... I see it now ...
what was wrong with my thinking ... you don't know yet ... you don't
know ... to you she was still the Princess Volna, loyal, true ... you
don't understand, please."

The wave rolled over Prokliam the seneschal, leaving him battered and
bloody and dead in its wake.

       *       *       *       *       *

The strong, whipping motion of Bram Forest's arm made a wall of steel
of his whip-sword. Try as he might, with all the skill at his command,
Retoc could not dent that wall. But, he thought, there was another
way. Slowly, desperately, he maneuvered Bram Forest back toward
Bontarc, who was sitting in the sand and using all his remaining
energy to hold the life blood in his veins, his fingers clamped,
vise-like, about his own arm.

Bram Forest's arm blurred up, down, to either side. He wove a web of
death. It was brawn against skill, he knew--and the strength of his
arm might win! Retoc was sweating. Retoc was not the cool swordsman he
had been moments before. Desperately, Retoc sought an opening, and
found none. True, his superior footwork was forcing Bram Forest back
across the sand, but what did that matter? Last time they dueled he
had made the mistake of meeting Retoc on his own grounds as greatest
swordsman of Tarth. This time....

His legs caught against something. He fell heavily.

Retoc's sword-point flashed down.

Bram Forest rolled over, stood up with sand blinding his eyes. For
precious moments he could see nothing but could only spin with the
whip-sword; slashing air in all directions, hoping Retoc couldn't
strike through the wall of steel.

Then, slowly, vision returned to his stinging eyes. Bontarc lay
stretched out on the sand now, unconscious, the blood pumping from his
severed artery. If he bled like that for more than a few moments, he
would die. If he died, and if Nadia rose in its wrath against Abaria,
then all that Bram Forest had dreamed of, not revenge against Abaria
for a wrong done, but eternal peace on Tarth, would be lost....

He took the offensive, weaving his wall of steel toward Retoc. The
Abarian thrust his own sword, and withdrew it, and parried, and lunged
and thrust again. The wall of steel which was Bram Forest's singing
blade advanced relentlessly.

Round and round his head, Bram Forest whirled the whip-sword. Retoc
could--just--block the motion, the death-laden circle, with his own
blade. He became accustomed to it. He used all his effort, all his
skill to block it.

Then, abruptly, Bram Forest raised his sword-arm and brought it down
from high over his head.

Retoc screamed.

And died screaming, his head and torso split from crown to navel.

Bram Forest rushed to Bontarc, stretched out on the sand, and with his
own hand stemmed the bleeding.

Bylanus the Golden Ape said: "All Tarth is yours to command if you
wish it, Bram Forest."

"No, Bylanus. Take your people back to your world and live in peace.
We of Tarth thank you."

Bylanus smiled. "I thought you would say that."

"Portox was a great scientist," Bram Forest said. "But he thought too
much of revenge. The ancient wrong is righted."

"Then you'll spare Abaria?" gasped the delegate of the assembled
Tarthian nobles, who had come to the meeting called by Bylanus that
night.

"My fight was with Retoc and the Abarian army. Retoc is dead, the army
decimated and disbanded. My fight with Abaria is over."

"Then what will you do?"

Bram Forest took Ylia's hand. "I'd like to see a great nation rise
again on the Plains of Ofrid."

Bontarc, his arm bandaged, said: "My people will help you build. And,
with your wayfarers as a nucleus maid Ylia...."

"It will be a small nation at first," Ylia said.

"It will grow, so long as Tarth knows peace," Bontarc told her.

"Tarth will know nothing but peace from now on," Bram Forest promised.

It was a promise which he knew all of them would keep.

THE END

       *       *       *       *       *





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